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Jeffrey Katzenberg Remains Upbeat on Quibi: ‘I’m Still Quite Optimistic This Is Gonna Work’

Jeffrey Katzenberg - Quibi
ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Jeffrey Katzenberg hasn’t given up on Quibi’s mobile-first business model.

The founder and chairman of Quibi has high hopes that his short-form premium video service — which has stalled out of the gate — will take off once COVID-19 quarantines are lifted later this summer.

“I’m still quite optimistic this is gonna work,” said Katzenberg, speaking Thursday during SeriesFest, in a virtual edition of the sixth annual TV festival.

Starting in July “when the country opens up… we are all going to be back on the go again,” he said. “The difference is, is that we are going to be waiting on line for more things than ever before… We are going to be waiting like crazy, and I hope Quibi is there to keep you entertained.”

Katzenberg still believes Quibi’s biggest problem is that it had the misfortune of coming out during the coronavirus pandemic. “At the very moment the world stopped being on the go was the moment we launched,” he said. “It was a cement wall we ran into.”

And he still asserts that Quibi is not competing for consumers’ time or money against the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video or HBO Max. Those other subscription VOD services “are competing for your time in the living room in watching long-form, episodic, serialized television,” he said. “They’re all battling for the same thing. We’re in a white space. We want you from 7 in the morning to 7 at night.”

As Katzenberg has previously acknowledged, Quibi’s early viewer numbers were well below forecasts, something he already has attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. If it remains on its current trajectory, the service will garner less than 2 million paying subscribers in its first year of operation, less than 30% of its 7.4 million goal, the Wall Street Journal reported this week. (Katzenberg didn’t discuss subscriber numbers in Thursday’s talk.)

The takeaway is that Katzenberg remains convinced there’s a millennial-skewing market for a premium mobile SVOD, discounting the possibility that people simply aren’t interested in watching (or, more to the point, paying for) high-end entertainment on smartphones in short episodic chunks.

Even as Katzenberg reiterated his conviction that Quibi’s original biz model is sound, his company has been quietly looking to broaden distribution — on living-room TVs. Variety was first to report that Quibi is in discussions with Roku and Amazon about bringing the streaming service to their connected-TV platforms. Quibi, sticking to its original vision of providing a mobile-only service, debuted April 6 without any way to stream on TVs. In the past three weeks, it has added support for Apple’s AirPlay and Google Chromecast.

Katzenberg didn’t discuss Quibi’s connected-TV ambitions in the SeriesFest kickoff livestream, where he was joined by Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global. The European cable operator, which is an investor in Quibi, sponsored the session.

The silver lining of launching during COVID-19, Katzenberg said, was that Quibi was able to treat the app’s rollout as a “beta” test, allowing the company to learn which content and features users liked and didn’t like. Quibi “doubled down” on the kinds of shows that were resonating, Katzenberg said.

Quibi now has some 75 shows on the platform, each broken into 6-10 minute “quick bites.” Katzenberg claimed the startup has been getting dozens of pitches every week for new projects. “That ecosystem is actually functioning right now,” he said.

Earlier in the conversation, Katzenberg mentioned that he’s dyslexic. “I’m convinced that when all of you saw ‘no,’ I saw ‘on,'” he said. “I don’t know the word ‘no.'”

Over the past year Quibi has seen high turnover among its senior ranks, with Megan Imbres, head of brand and content marketing, the latest to exit the company just two weeks after launch. Quibi earlier this month said top execs, including CEO Meg Whitman, were taking a 10% salary cut as a cost-saving measure.

Before he started Quibi and formed investment holding company WndrCo, Katzenberg served as CEO and co-founder of DreamWorks Animation (sold to Comcast) and was chairman of Walt Disney Studios for 10 years. Quibi has raised $1.75 billion from major Hollywood studios and other investors. The company expects to need an additional $200 million to fund the business by the second half of 2021, per the Journal report.