Whitman’s hope is that just as people now binge on hour-long episodes of The Crown or House of Cards at home, they’ll do the same on their smartphone while in the doctor’s office, or commuting, or waiting for a meeting to start. As Whitman puts it, “Every day you walk around with a little television in your pocket.” She and Katzenberg are betting that by the end of this year, we’ll spend some of our “in-between moments” watching micro-instalments of mobile movies produced by Oscar winning film-maker Guillermo del Toro orTwilight director Catherine Hardwicke, or stars such as Justin Timberlake interviewing Taylor Swift about the moment that made her realise she wanted to be a singer (seeing Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, in case you were wondering).
I can see the logic, although the thought of clicking on yet another bit of instantaneous stimulation whenever I have some downtime makes me tired. Whatever happened to white space? There is certainly little of it in Whitman’s world. I’ve been allotted an hour on her schedule. But this is fine, because she is incredibly efficient. After a minute or two of chit-chat, she asks if I’ve seen the menu and beckons the waitress over. She looks at the menu for a few seconds before ordering a half-portion of chopped chicken salad, dressing on the side, no starter. I’m a bit disappointed, because this means I can’t get two courses. I settle for the grilled salmon served on roasted corn purée and a coffee with cream to help my jet lag.
Whitman is, in some ways, an odd choice for a venture such as Quibi. She comes across as warm, professional, and utterly competent, but not creative. She’s got the tech chops, between eBay and HP. But her last job at a content company was a brief stint as vice-president of strategic planning at Disney in the late 1980s. “I really didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I loved Disney and I thought it was the greatest job I ever had. But my husband and I have traded off careers over the entire 38 years we’ve been married, and he got a chance to run the brain tumour programme at Harvard’s teaching hospital, Mass General. He really wanted to go, and I really didn’t want to go. Sometimes in life you have to do things you don’t want to.”
She says this in the matter-of-fact way that underscores her reputation as a safe pair of hands — clearly one reason she was on the shortlist to run Uber back in 2017. “I have a little mental model for what makes great consumer tech businesses, and it’s way easier to be in a business where the trends are in your favour. I’ve done it both ways. At HP, there were gale-force winds.”
The wind was at her back at eBay, where she became president and CEO in 1998, presiding over a decade in which the company’s annual revenues grew from $4m to $8bn. “It’s hard to change consumer behaviour. We did that at eBay. We taught people how to buy in any auction format on the internet, how to send money 4,800km across the country and hope that you got the product.”
Quibi, she believes, doesn’t require that shift. “People are already watching a lot of videos on their phones. You just need to create a different experience.” She lays out how the company will optimise video for phones in ways that (she claims) will utterly change the viewing experience, and will leverage Katzenberg’s 40 years in the business.
I push back a little on this. It will certainly help to have Katzenberg calling in favours from stars and directors whose careers he’s helped to make. But do people really want to pay for content made by professionals, rather than get it for free from the amateurs who’ve turned YouTube into a cash cow for Google? And even if you buy the pitch, why spend so much money on content creation at the top of a credit cycle?
“You need scale to compete,” she fires back. “That’s the genesis of the Fox-Disney merger, for sure. And I think it’s part of the story around the AT&T-Time Warner merger, and I think you’ll see more consolidation in this industry.” I’d agree with that — but remain unconvinced that scale alone will help these brands compete with the tech giants leveraging data and the network effect.
Our lunch arrives. “That’s a very large half-salad,” Whitman says, eyeing the American-sized bowl of chopped chicken and greens warily. “That’s OK, though, because I won’t eat it all. You can see why I asked for half.” I dig into my salmon, which is nicely done and works well atop the corn chowder.
Whitman believes companies that are willing to bet big can succeed. She points out that the premium cable network HBO launched some of its most famous shows at the height of ad-supported TV, when existing networks were already making plenty of money on good content. “Nobody was complaining about the quality of television ... but HBO commissionedBand of Brothersfor what today is $30m an episode.” By creating an entirely new market niche of edgy, subscription-based drama, Whitman notes, HBO changed how we thought about the medium itself.
I’m still not persuaded. Yes, it does seem like short is the new long, and that millennial media consumption patterns may someday be the norm. Whitman likes to trot out the fact that even books are being consumed in short bursts, pointing to Dan Brown’s 2003 blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, which has 464 pages and 105 chapters.
Still, what’s to stop Google paying a bunch of smart people even more money to make super high-quality content at whatever length they like? “Well, I think a lot of the major tech companies have had trouble getting into content and a lot of the content companies have had trouble getting a platform.” True enough. As anyone who’s spent time in both Hollywood and Silicon Valley will know, the two cultures do not make for easy bedfellows.
My hour is almost up. There will be no time for one of those all-American desserts, such as “Mom’s Chocolate Buttermilk Cake” or a “Spirited Root Beer Float”. I tell Whitman I hope she’s forgiven Lucy Kellaway for her critique of her management-speak. She looks flustered for a moment and then says, “Well, the good news is that since running for governor, I don’t read any of this [media coverage].” Really, I ask, you don’t read articles about yourself? “No,” she says. “And I shouldn’t have when I ran for governor, because it doesn’t make you better ... it makes you more unstable.”
Her campaign, which was fraught with issues of negative advertising against her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown and accusations that she’d knowingly employed an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper, certainly won her plenty of bad press. Would she ever run again? “Never. Politics today is just a full-on combat sport. It’s nasty. You have to be a fighter. And actually, at my core, I’m not a fighter. I don’t love combat. Just think about how many successful politicians have been litigators.”
Whitman is probably better off in business, where qualities such as professionalism and efficiency have more value. Our lunch has clocked in at exactly 59 minutes and 16 seconds, leaving me a bit of time before the trip back to the airport. I could watch a short video. But instead, I put away my phone and opt for a walk in the California sun.