“What I’m doing here reminds me of eBay in its earliest days. The consumer tech has changed a ton, but the fundamentals are the same around user experience and user interface,” Whitman tells TheWrap
Meg Whitman has reinvented herself time and again throughout a storied career that has spanned tech, entertainment and politics. Now, as chief executive officer of Quibi — the brainchild of Hollywood hitmaker Jeffrey Katzenberg — she seeks to reinvent how a generation watches short-form mobile video.
Quibi, short for “quick bites,” is set to launch in April 2020 and already has greenlit about two dozen shows from a who’s who of stars, including Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Don Cheadle, Stephen Curry, Anna Kendrick, Idris Elba, Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers, among others.
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TheWrap recently spoke with Whitman at length about Quibi’s content strategy and why she believes the company is poised to avoid mobile-first video blunders of the past. She also reflects on how her career trajectory, which has taken her from stints at Procter & Gamble and Disney to the helms of eBay and HP, have led her to the buzz-worthy start-up that already has raised $1 billion from big-name investors like Disney, Viacom and NBCUniversal.
Quibi plans to offer an ad-supported subscription for $4.99 a month and an ad-free version for $7.99 a month. Last month at Cannes, Katzenberg and Whitman announced Quibi had already sold $100 million worth of ads.
Whitman is confident that Quibi’s quick-hit approach — with each episode running 10 minutes or less — will not only set the company apart, but seamlessly fit into a person’s on-the-go viewing schedule.
(Interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
How did Quibi determine an approximately 10-minute running time for its shows?
I think it was two things. One was the use case [of] on-the-go viewing. In 2012, our target audience of Millennials watched six minutes a day of video on mobile; today it’s 60 minutes a day on their mobile [device]. And most of that is on-the-go. It looks to me like it’s an up-and-to-the-right chart that you and I would be familiar with in Silicon Valley. It looks like an accelerating trend. And so we said there’s really something to watching video on mobile.
And then we said, okay, so this target audience is on their mobile phone about five hours a day. They’re playing casual games; they’re watching YouTube; they’re doing social networking; they’re doing collaboration and communication. We just did a quick division: each session in that 5 hours is under 10 minutes. So we said, okay, let’s make content that fits this on-average 10 minutes-or-less session length. That’s how we came to it.
Other companies have tried and failed at mobile-first video, with Verizon’s shuttered Go90 coming to mind. And streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu haven’t focused on mobile viewing. Why do you think mobile-only is a good way to go?
We think of Quibi as a complement to, rather than a competitor of, the other big streaming services — like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video — because they are more lean-back, invest-in long-form, super high-quality content.
Less than 10% of their viewing is on mobile. There [aren’t] a lot of people watching Hulu on their phones. So we really think of it as complementary.
And we think the timing is right. It’s up to 60 minutes a day of watching video on mobile, [and] we think we’re doing a quality of content that has not been done before. You mentioned Go90: We have a much higher quality of content — the producers, the directors, the stars, the amount we’re spending per minute of content. It’s really much more similar to Hollywood content, the major studios.
What that does is gets you great stories, better production values and the stars and directors that make these films compelling. And we think we’ve got the right business model, which is a combination of subscription plus advertising, that allows us to make that kind of investment in the content.
Is there an underlying theme to the shows that have been green-lit?
One of the things that’s unique about Quibi, back to your question about what are we doing differently, is we have really three different kinds of content.
The first is “Lighthouses,” and they are movies. They are 100 minutes, 180 minutes, 200 minutes, that are delivered in 10-minute chapters. We just announced #Freerayshawn, directed by Antoine Fuqua. And that’s 18 10-minute chapters. [The Sony Pictures TV drama, starring Stephan James and Laurence Fishburne, tells the story of a black Iraq War veteran that returns to New Orleans and is framed by police in a drug bust.]
The second kind of content is what we’re calling “Quick Bites.” These will probably be a little bit shorter than 10 minutes. I can’t even keep track of what we have and haven’t announced (Laughs). Justin Timberlake is doing a show called “Inspired By,” talking to singers about the songs and artists that inspired them, and he’ll interview one a week for 20 weeks, and that’ll be 6-to-8 minutes [per episode.] Then we announced, “Thanks a Million” with J-Lo — where a star goes and does a pay-it-forward, gives $100,000 to someone who made a difference to them, on the proviso that they give $50,000 to someone that made a difference in their lives, all the way down to $2,500.
These [quick bite shows], you don’t have to watch them in order…. There’s a theme to them — they’re fun and delightful, but they’re not serialized.
And then the bottom of the pyramid, if you will, the anchor of the service is “daily essentials.” Those are lower lead-time productions, effectively curating news, sports, e-gaming, celebrity news, horoscopes, the best of late-night, curating things that you have to work hard to find on the internet in a convenient way for this millennial audience.
When the app launches next year, will subscribers see a number of shows to binge right away, or will it be more of an HBO model where shows come out on a certain day?
You will be able to binge. But the way we’re releasing one of our Lighthouses, in the case of Antoine’s, is releasing one show a day for 18 days, Monday through Friday. And then it becomes part of the library. So you could wait until day 19 and finish the whole thing if you wanted to, or you could follow along day-by-day.
We’re trying to see if we can recreate a bit of the watercooler [show] that used to occur with television. We’ll see. Our users will tell us. They’ll either like this idea of dropping a show a day for 18 days, or they’ll hate it (Laughs). And if they don’t like it, we’ll let people binge. We’re going to be very responsive to what the users want.
But we do think the notion of bringing back a watercooler [show] is something the people have said they want.
To clarify, is that going to be for every show Quibi releases?
It will be for the Lighthouse, because those are the ones you have to watch in serial. For Quick Bites, we haven’t decided a publishing schedule, but if Justin Timberlake is going to interview a star once a week for twenty weeks, they’ll maybe drop once a week.
What’s Quibi’s target demo? It has been reported to be 25-35. How did executives arrive at the target audience?
Both Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and I have done start-ups before, and at start-ups it’s important to focus. And so we said, let’s have the content really be focused on 25- to 35-year-olds. We’ll probably pick up seven years younger, to your point, and even seven years older, so maybe we’ll end up with 18- to 44-year-olds, but we wanted to make sure that we were hitting the core of the millennial audience because they have the capacity to pay. Most of them are working, and we know they’re very mobile-first in their orientation. And there is no children’s programming. This is an adult platform, at least to start with.
You’ve said Quibi is not a Netflix competitor. But mobile-first, is a crowded field, with Instagram, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, and other apps. What are you most concerned about?
The way I think about this is that you go back to this notion of watching video on mobile. I mentioned it was 6 minutes a day in 2012 and was 60 minutes a day in 2018. I think the market for watching video on your mobile continues to grow, right? You just love being in growing markets because you can help that market grow faster — and we think we’ll help that market grow by the kind of content we’re delivering, the quality of content that we’re delivering, the unique content strategy we have and the technology that powers the mobile platform. We aim to make viewing video on your mobile a really differentiated experience.
One of the things I look for is are you entering a growth market or a flat market where you have to take a bunch of share? We’re entering a growth market, but there’s no question that people are filling that time today, so we’ll have to obviously offer them something they haven’t had before, and maybe they’ll watch more video per day then they otherwise would have.
Quibi plans to offer an ad-supported subscription for $4.99 a month and an ad-fee version for $7.99 per month. Will there be a free trial to get people on board immediately?
There almost certainly will be a free trial. We haven’t scoped it out exactly like how long and all of that, but there will certainly be a free trial. Because this is something entirely new, right? People won’t have heard of Quibi. I don’t think they’ll immediately associate us with an on-the-go use case. We’re certainly going to do a free trial, so stay tuned for more [information].
You have an eclectic background. What do you take from your past lives and apply to Quibi day-to-day?
Almost everything (Laughs). I started my career in consumer. My first job was at [Proctor and Gamble] in Cincinnati, Ohio. So the consumer-orientation from my earliest career days is super important.This is a consumer service. Then my Baine days were obviously strategy. We had to think strategically through all the kinds of questions you’re asking — who was the target audience; what was the use case; who was the competition; what were we going to offer; what was the economic model?
Then my time at Disney was my first experience with entertainment. I have nowhere near the experience that Jeffrey does in entertainment, but it’s not an entirely unfamiliar playing field.
And then I’ve done a start-up before called eBay. You might recall I joined eBay when there were 30 employees and $4 million in revenue and grew that to 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue, so a lot of what I’m doing here reminds me of eBay in its earliest days. The consumer tech has changed a ton, but the fundamentals are the same around user experience and user interface.
And then HP was obviously helpful because I learned about the backend and scalable systems.
Politics, I have to say, was a detour. (Laughs)
Does your time in politics now help you navigate the entertainment world?
I don’t know. I have to say, I learned a lot about a whole different industry, learned a lot about politics, and learned to have a pretty thick skin. When you run for office, you have to have a pretty thick skin, and when you start a company, lots of people will be naysayers, and you have to persevere and say, “Listen, we believe this is exactly the right thing based on data and what we think will work.”
So if there’s anything I learned from politics is probably a little bit of a thick skin — or thicker. (Laughs)