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3 Big Questions About Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Billion-Dollar Gamble on Premium Mobile TV

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman will build it. Will the world’s smartphone-carrying masses come?

The duo this week announced that they’ve landed a $1 billion kitty from major Hollywood entertainment companies, Chinese technology giant Alibaba, and blue-chip VCs. The plan with their startup, temporarily named “NewTV,” is to create a mobile-specific subscription entertainment service, stocked with big-budget shows from top-flight talent.

In other words: It’s not HBO. It’s TV for the mobile generation.

Katzenberg and Whitman are basing their hypothesis on the surge in video viewed on smartphones. There’s no question this is happening: On average, the number of minutes viewed per day on mobile devices by consumers globally has risen from about 14 minutes in 2015 to a projected 35 minutes in 2018, per Mary Meeker’s latest “Internet Trends” report.

But the devil’s in the details. We don’t know what the NewTV product will look like, what it will cost, or who will be creating the shows. (Hell, we don’t even know the company’s official name, yet.) What’s to prevent NewTV from ending up in the same graveyard that has claimed previous unsuccessful runs at mobile video like Verizon’s Go90, Jason Kilar’s Vessel or Samsung’s Milk Video?

“Nobody doubts the content will be compelling,” said Peter Csathy, founder/chairman of consulting and investment firm Creatv Media. “Jeffrey Katzenberg’s a proven brand-maker. But just having his name attached to it doesn’t guarantee success.”

Three looming questions remain for NewTV, Katzenberg’s next act after building DreamWorks Animation into a sizable studio and selling it to NBCUniversal.

1. Will the economics of NewTV’s premium subscription mobile TV model work?

What sets Katzenberg’s ambitious idea different from attempts to date to create mobile entertainment is the amount he says he wants to invest in each show. He’s frequently cited the gap between short-form originals produced for platforms like YouTube, Facebook or Snapchat and high-end scripted TV shows. For the former, he ballparks production costs at sub-$5,000 per minute; a huge TV show (think “Game of Thrones”) is in the range of $100,000 per minute.

NewTV’s original programming will play somewhere in between. The theory is that people will happily pay for high-quality content. It’s impossible to crunch the numbers here, but it seems obvious NewTV will have to set a fairly high subscription price and attract millions of subs to make this work.

If it goes out on par with Netflix ($11 per month) it would need 5 million customers to get $660 million in yearly revenue. Will that be enough to defray its massive content and technology investment in the service? Again, we don’t know where NewTV will set the dials to try to hit the best price/value point. It can’t go too low on pricing, either. As MoviePass has shown us, people will flock to a high-value entertainment service — but the critical problem is, the economics of the model have to be sustainable.

2. Will people pay for mobile video the way they’re paying for mobile music?

Another proof point Katzenberg cites is the dramatic rise of premium streaming music services. In less than 10 years, Spotify has captured 83 million paying customers.

So premium video can ride that same curve, right? I’m not so sure. The use cases for video versus music are pretty dramatically different. I can listen to music while driving, jogging or doing other things — video requires your full attention. And are people going to stream a 10-minute episode of a psychological drama or reality show on a treadmill, or while waiting at the checkout line? Maybe.

The comparison to music-streaming also falls down on another front: Spotify and Apple Music promise unlimited access to a catalog of virtually any song you want to listen to (with exceptions, of course). NewTV will be a bunch of stuff that is brand-new — sure, featuring actors and showrunners you’ve heard of, but still. Recall that Netflix had to build its base of streaming customers based on licensed TV shows and movies — which, by the way, still account for the bulk of its viewing time — before it launched into originals.

Meanwhile, it’s arguable that NewTV’s exclusive focus on mobile could be a disadvantage as it vies for share against the Netflixes of the world. Even with the rise of mobile video, most people still watch premium entertainment on the big screen.

Adults aged 18-34 (NewTV’s stated target demo) watched 24 hours and 46 minutes of traditional television per week in Q1 2018, according to Nielsen — and just 1 hour 45 minutes of video on a smartphone and 52 minutes on a tablet. The mobile-entertainment opportunity Katzenberg is going after will continue to be in the context of everything else people pay for (with their attention and their money).

3. Can NewTV win mindshare amid the glut of over-the-top streaming video already out there?

While NewTV may be the only player in the game today focusing totally on big-budget mobile TV, there are dozens of video services out there you can watch on mobile devices. The list of free and subscription services here is long — YouTube, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, CBS, and Twitter… to name just a few. And then there’s Apple, which is spending like there’s no tomorrow on original programming which, of course, will be easily accessible on an iPhone.

Katzenberg and Whitman vow that NewTV will be unique: the only Hollywood-fed mobile video service explicitly built for watching on the go. That’s fine. But in practice, how is someone watching 10 minutes of, say, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” different from whatever bite-size sitcoms NewTV orders up? Netflix has already dabbled in shorter-form (15 minute) episodic programming with comedy. To my mind, a subscription VOD service engineered around 10-minute episodes is probably not really the kind of defensible, first-mover business Katzenberg thinks it is.

NewTV will be looking for distribution deals with wireless operators and potentially other huge partners. (Whitman pointed out that the lead investor on NewTV’s billion-dollar round, Madrone Capital, is headed by Greg Penner, chairman of Walmart.)

There’s a good fit for NewTV on the wireless front, for sure. Netflix has a bundling deal with T-Mobile, Hulu has one with Sprint, and AT&T throws in HBO for “free” on select unlimited wireless plans. Could NewTV get a slot on one of those carriers or the now-Go90-less Verizon? It’s possible, but scale like this matters only if people use the product. The question is whether NewTV can get the stars to line up and deliver something truly interesting and affordable — and worth tuning in to regularly instead of, say, checking your Instagram feed.

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