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 ...and more »
Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are undoubtedly smart, übersuccessful executives/CEOs/mogul types. They've built and steered huge enterprises. And they've made a lot of money along the way.
The two have now raised $1 billion for a mobile video startup, NewTV , that promises to yield a 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. Ten-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.
Short-form shows have been tried forever
This idea really isn't that new. Hollywood and Silicon Valley have been at this — making short 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 the 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?
We could go on and on and on .
OK, 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 of more-recent misfires. 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 the "Bright Lights Big City" author Bret Easton Ellis.
Fullscreen execs thought it would get 5 million paying subscribers. It's gone now.
Let's look at Facebook. It boasts of 2 billion daily users. Its News Feed may contain the most influential algorithm in the world (see Trump, Donald). Yet according to The Information, it's struggling to get people to see Facebook Watch or even to know it exists.
Have you tuned into the Kerry Washington-produced " Five Points" lately? No? Based on the numbers, you're not alone.
It's not easy to get people to adapt a new entertainment option
The biggest challenge Facebook Watch seems to be facing is that it's trying to create new behavior. It's hard enough launching a new show on TV, where people actually watch TV. It's even harder on a hidden tab on Facebook.
If anything, 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 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.
NewTV has some top-shelf backers, but they're also competitors
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 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 may be making life extremely hard for the new venture — Disney will be rolling out its own Netflix-killer streaming service right at about 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.
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