Can Quibi Be Your New Go-To App?

CEO Meg Whitman on diversity and innovation in the new streamer

Quibi, the new streaming app packed with short form content: Can it solve the perpetual problem of being a short form streaming platform for mobile with high production values? CEO Meg Whitman is betting that it can.

The coronavirus lockdown has been a mixed affair for the entertainment industry. Production has halted, cinemas are closed, TV ratings for anything except the news are low – but streaming platforms are facing soaring demand. So it's a wild time for new phone-based streaming service Quibi to enter the market.

Unlike services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which mix leased and purchased content with original shows and movies, Quibi only has its own shows, served in sub-10-minute slices. Again, unlike its rivals/peers, it's built for cell phones, not for big screens. The streaming service launched on April 6, with a total of 700,000 downloads for the app on day one, rising to 1.7 million in its first week.

It's a daring (and expensive) initiative, but this isn't your average startup. For starters, most new companies can't raise $1 billion from a panoply of investors including NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures, WarnerMedia, ViacomCBS, and the Walt Disney Company.

That last name is key, since that's where Quibi CEO Meg Whitman met company founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. In the 1980s, she was vice president for strategic planning, while Katzenberg was chairman (she was later also on the board of Dreamworks, the animation house and studio Katzenberg co-founded in 1994). Now, after decades as an executive or board member at name brands like Hewlett Packard, Hasbro, and even a little startup called eBay, she's back in the startup business.

That said, she's not exactly hotdesking, or hanging out waiting for the microwave in a co-working space. Quibi's dozens of launch titles have pulled in A-listers like Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth, Chrissy Teigen, Laurence Fishburne, and Sophie Turner, while filmmakers including Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things), Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), Sam Raimi, and Steven Spielberg have all developed or directed shows. They're even bringing back Gen-X faves like Legends of the Hidden Temple and Reno 911! alongside newly formatted content from TMZ and 60 Minutes.

It's the format that's key. Every episode is under 10 minutes, and the real innovation is that shows can be watched landscape or portrait on your phone or tablet (Quibi has promised that they will be developing for TV soon).

Austin Chronicle: The landscape/portrait decision seems pivotal to everything you're trying to do here, in terms of meeting audiences on how they even want to hold their phone. How early was that question part of the discussion?

“(Hollywood is) very creative and entrepreneurial, and that was a real delight for me to come from Silicon Valley and say, I’ve found some real kindred spirits in terms of trying to do something different.” – Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman: Well, we knew that, with this device, our smartphones, we had to think about what changes this has brought in the last 10 to 15 years. It's changed everyone's lives. And it's good for watching video, we said, how do we make it great?

In September/October last year, we said one of the big challenges people have is that it's hard to rotate portrait to landscape in full-screen video. Some videos you can only watch horizontal, sometimes you can only watch in vertical. We said, we won't be able to do that full screen in beautiful images befitting of what Hollywood creators create. So we sent our engineers off to try to figure out how to do it. They tried many different ways to do it, and they ultimately settled on a patented technology called Turnstyle, which effectively knits together that the scrapers give us a portrait cut and a landscape cut.

It pushed everything, and we had to explain to our creators – writers, producers, directors – how to produce for this new format. But I have to say they embraced it enthusiastically. I have to say, they're a very entrepreneurial community in Hollywood. Think about it. Every time you start a movie, it's a startup.

AC: I know a lot of indie filmmakers, and the startup metaphor comes up pretty regularly. They're creating a six-month business model, which hopefully will have a long-term revenue stream, or get acquired.

MW: That's right. They're very creative and entrepreneurial, and that was a real delight for me to come from Silicon Valley and say, "I've found some real kindred spirits in terms of trying to do something different."

AC: The two fields that have had high-profile issues with diversity are tech and Hollywood, and you're definitely touching both fields here. I was wondering about the thinking that you can ensure that you have something representative, ensuring diversity both on the development and in terms of audiences.

MW: One of our core values at Quibi is "Be the audience." That's another way of saying being customer obsessed, but we also knew that we had to be building a company that is representative of that audience. So our company is 50% women, it is 47% people who identify as people of color. It is remarkably diverse, and we had the luxury that we were building from scratch. We really tried to embrace diversity from the beginning so that we could reflect the audience for our content.

We're also very conscious that, in front of the camera, behind the camera, making sure that women and men and people of color have a chance at Quibi. I think that's one of the reasons that people are so excited, because it really is built for a very diverse audience. This generation is the most diverse generation in American history, and we wanted to embrace that from the very beginning.

New documentary series I Promise, one of the high profile launch titles for streaming platform Quibi

AC: How involved were you in working out the initial programming? Because it's always a complicated question of, do we go into niches and build out, or do we try to give a smear of everything we want to do, so what was the thinking about what day one would look like?

MW: Well, this was a perfect collaboration between Jeffrey and me, because he has the instincts about what will appeal, and what I wanted to do was the customer segmentation, to find out who were going to be the entertainment enthusiasts, and who were going to be other segments of the market. So we combined his left brain and my right brain to say, what is the content we want to try to make for different market segments, and then things he knew would work.

We had a full array of content to prove from, and then for launch we went, what do we want people's first experience to be of Quibi? We wanted movies in chapters, we wanted a selection of our alternatives in unscripted and documentaries, and of course we wanted people to get a taste of the daily essentials.

So we sat with a big whiteboard and an Airtable, and said, what do we think is going to be the best thing, based on what we know about customers, and Jeffrey and his team's intuition, and we came up with what I think is a very strong launch slate.

AC: So, out of what you've launched so far, what's your favorite?

MW: I think I have a couple of favorites. My favorite documentary is I Promise, which is LeBron James' story of starting this school in Akron, Ohio, for low-income third- and fourth-graders, and how he surrounds them with all these things they need to be successful. Their achievements have been incredible, and it's a lovely and heartwarming story.

I think my favorite movie in chapters is probably Survive, starring Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones and a new actor called Corey Hawkins. And my favorite daily essential, in addition to the news and weather, is The Rachel Hollis Show. She's a hero to millennial moms, and she's got a great daily talk show. I'm not a millennial mom – I am a mom, but I'm not a millennial – but I love it anyway.

The Quibi app is available for free now to download, with a 90-day free subscription, and monthly plans starting at $4.99.

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Quibi, Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Streaming Service, Sam Raimi

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