Interview: eBay creator Meg Whitman about launching Quibi streaming service amidst a pandemic

Quibi is an ambitious, well-funded new streaming service for your smartphone or tablet that targets on-the-go millennials with dozens of original programs available in doses of 10 minutes or less.

Created by famed film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay chief Meg Whitman, Quibi was supposed to provide a fresh counterweight to the likes of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

Programs were meant to be watched while on a commuter train, awaiting friends at a restaurant, in an elevator or in the car-pool lane. They nabbed no shortage of A-List celebrities to provide content including Anna Kendrick, Kevin Hart, Idris Elba and Jennifer Lopez

Unfortunately, the timing of Quibi’s launch earlier this month coincided with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that sidelined much of the service’s marketing efforts and forced a bulk of its potential audience into their homes. 
And many early reviews of Quibi’s new shows so far have been less than enthralling. Vulture’s Katheryn VanArendonk wrote last week: “I still can’t quite get my arms around why watching Quibi feels like staring into the void.”

Photo: Meg Whitman, CEO of Quibi. CR: Quibi

Three weeks into Quibi’s launch, CEO Whitman got on the phone with me to discuss the service and how Quibi has been able to adapt and capture attention during such trying times.

“We had to change almost everything” thanks to the virus, she said.

Quibi had a massive Hollywood press junket and gala set up last month with 158 stars scheduled for the red carpet to extol the virtues of the service. COVID-19 forced them to cancel those plans and go for an Instagram Live event instead.

Marketing buys for the NCAA Final Four and the NBA Finals were nixed since neither event ended up happening. 

All 250 employees suddenly had to work from home. And they were about to go into rehearsals on the daily shows with the likes of NBC, ESPN and the Weather Channel when they had to scramble and figure out how do them in a safe way. 

“It has definitely brought out the entrepreneurial spirit in everyone,” Whitman said. “Every day in the month brings in new data, new possibilities, new constraints you have to figure out how to maneuver. So far, so good. We have to stay nimble and tolerate ambiguity and be bold.” 

After two weeks, she said, 2.7 million people have uploaded the service. 

“We’re excited about how they’re reacting to the content,” Whitman said. The biggest shows so far, she said, are the action-thriller “Most Dangerous Game” starring Liam Hemsworth and Christoph Waltz and another thriller “Survive” starring Sophie Turner of “Game of Thrones” fame. She said millennials have also liked Rachel Hollis’ motivational talk show, the Chrissy Teigen judge show, the reboot of “Punk’d” featuring Chance the Rapper and a comedy with Anna Kendrick, “Dummy.”

As for generating new content down the road despite the current shutdown in traditional TV and film production, Whitman said Quibi is well positioned in the coming months.

“We banked a lot of content ahead of time,” she said. “We have enough content through October, November. And our Daily Essential productions are daily and will continue.”

To make Quibi more enticing, management extended what was originally a 14-day free trial period to 90 days. They are also planning to offer a TV version much quicker than planned. 

“So many people are a bit challenged economically,” Whitman said. “Let’s give them a chance to have a little laughter, some distraction from the day to day and enjoy Quibi.”

The current economic environment makes it hard for them to create accurate projections down the road, especially as a start up.

“We have a long way to go,” Whitman said. “There are going to be a few twists and turns on this journey. I can’t wait for us to get back to some sense of normal for a host of reasons.”

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.