Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are undoubtedly smart, uber successful executives/CEOs/mogul types. They’ve built and steered huge enterprises. And they’ve made a lot of money along the way.
The duo have raised $1 billion for a new mobile video startup, NewTV , that promises to yield a brand new form of premium, short form storytelling. They must know what they are doing, right?
The thing is, when it comes to the content business, no one knows what they’re doing. And it’s fair to ask: What are Katzenberg and Whitman thinking? Have they heard about go90 ?
Credit the pair for bold thinking. NewTV promises to reinvent entertainment for a mobile age. To build new viewing patterns. 10-minute or less episode series. Shows designed for gaps in your day (like waiting in line). Katzenberg likened it to the launches of HBO and Spotify.
“There’s many use cases in the past that exemplify why when you come along with something that is exceptional and convenient and premium, people will migrate to it if in fact it delivers on the promise,” Katzenberg told CNBC.
This idea really isn’t that new. Hollywood and Silicon Valley have been at this — making short form original web content — for over a decade. Based on that history, there’s very little evidence that people want this kind of content.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane:
Remember the teen mystery/soap Prom Queen? Foreign Body? These were short form, scripted, episodic shows from Vuguru — a not dissimilar web video venture founded by Katzenberg rival and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner back in 2007.
Vuguru took a big swing at original web series. Eventually it folded into Eisner’s The Tornante Company , which focuses on making, you guessed it, regular TV shows.
Remember when MSN (yes MSN!) was making snackable web shows like ” Mr. Robinson’s Driving School “? When the guys behind the viral stunt Lonelygirl 15 tried a teen soap built for social media ? When ABC was producing short sci-fi for the web? When TV networks made webisodes ? Recall Alec Baldwin’s “Love Ride” on Vessel?
Okay, so perhaps it’s not fair to bring up 10-year old examples of this, considering these series are mostly from the pre-smartphone, pre-OTT era.
But we can find plenty more recent misfires. For example, in 2016, the YouTube-born video firm Fullscreen launched a subscription service aimed at young consumers that included original scripted shows, including a project from “Bright Lights Big City” author Brett Easton Ellis.
Fullscreen execs thought it would get 5 million paying subscribers . It’s gone now.
Lets look at Facebook. It boasts of 2 billion daily users. It’s news feed may be the most influential algorithm in the world (see Trump, Donald). Yet according to The Information, it’s struggling to get people to watch, or even know Facebook Watch exists.
Have you tuned into the Kerry Washington produced ” Five Points” lately? No? Based on the numbers, you’re not alone.
The biggest challenge Facebook Watch seems to be facing is that it’s trying to create an entirely new behavior. It’s hard enough launching a new show on TV, where people actually watch TV. Even harder on a hidden tab on Facebook
If anything, either Facebook’s Instagram or Snapchat, with their young, entertainment-oriented audiences, would make smart homes for the kind of shows NewTV is describing. Maybe a blend of lean back videos and the vertical interactive Stories format.
But to launch new shows, a new app, and a new viewing pattern? That’s an awfully tall order, even backed by a billion bucks.
Just ask Verizon! It spent and spent on go90, which was supposed to be fully designed for young mobile loving, non-linear TV watching consumers. It bombed, despite experimenting with short form original shows, like the 15-minute episode, serialized show Tagged.
But alas, NewTV wants to launch its own subscription app.
Katzenberg has lined up a terrific list of backers: Warner Bros, Disney, NBCUniversal, Alibaba.
“Every single major Hollywood studio joined in this round, along with, as you pointed out, technology companies and strategic financial investors, and they share our vision in creating an entirely new entertainment platform that’s optimized for easy on the go mobile viewing and allows top talent in Hollywood to tell stories in an entirely new way,” Whitman told CNBC.
And who’s to say some brilliant young creator doesn’t have an idea for a show that doesn’t fit in conventional formats and can take advantage of mobile screens in a unique way.
After all, if TV networks didn’t start establishing half hour slots for comedies, would “I Love Lucy” ever have seen the light of day?
But it’s also noteworthy that none of these media giants took a majority stake in NewTV, or is trying to do it themselves. The New York Times’ Ed Lee says that Katzenberg and Whitman had wanted to raise twice as much dough. It seems telling that they didn’t.
Even with $1 billion, NewTV will be fighting an uphill battle. That’s roughly what FX spends on its original programming. Netflix and Amazon are spending five to eight times more. And AT&T promises to significantly ramp up its HBO budget . Don’t forget Apple.
True, these tech giants focus on long form content. But they are also increasingly making shows available for download on mobile devices. So you can watch “Game of Thrones” on the train, while waiting in line, whenever or wherever.
Even one of its backers is potentially making life extremely hard for the new venture. Disney, for its part, will be rolling out its own Netflix-killer streaming service right around the time NewTV hits the market. It will have Star Wars and The Incredibles.
NewTV better have something incredible up its sleeve, or it seems destined to be an expensive content footnote.