Like Go90, New TV risks falling into the chasm between TV and smartphone

We first wrote about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new mobile TV project back in July, and while we dissed the very idea that 10-minute episodes were the right way to go, analysts at our sister service, Faultline, took a deeper look. Katzenberg’s pitch is to include traditional TV budgets, high profile actors, celebrities, directors and writers, working on primetime-worthy dramas, comedies, talk shows and news, edited into these short episodes. So how’s he doing?

The former DreamWorks Animation CEO stepped down from the position last August after selling it off to Comcast-owned NBCUniversal for a cool $3.8m. Katzenberg is now quietly creating what he’s calling a new form of entertainment, though it sounds like just about every other big media’s attempt to play in a world dominated by YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat: a mobile-focused entertainment service that’ll finally crack the code on premium content delivered in short, snackable bites.

The idea that mobile owners want shorter content dates back to around 1990, and no-one has ever been able to prove that it works. Each year the average length of video content watched on a phone goes up and is well into long form content.

The service, operating under the working title ‘New TV’, will be launched under the new holding company WndrCo, which Katzenberg launched in January. WndrCo will operate much like Barry Dillar’s IAC as a holding company for start-ups in media and other tech-driven sectors facing disruption. Katzenberg’s first big if not confusing hire for New TV is Meg Whitman, former Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO famed for growing eBay into a retail powerhouse in the early 2000s.

Katzenberg’s ideas for New TV will face the same obstacles that Verizon’s Go90, Jason Kilar’s Vessel, and Comcast’s Millennial-geared mobile short-form video meets cable set top disaster, called Watchable, have faced: mainly, getting the right viewers to actually engage with the content. One of the truisms of watching long form content on the mobile is that every time the viewer is waiting or bored or travelling, they watch a little more because they are so keen to find out the outcome.

That’s engagement. If the message is over in 10 minutes, there is no knowing if the viewer was any more engaged.

This is hardly the first venture into premium short form content – though Katzenberg’s New TV appears to be aiming a little higher than YouTube originals. He’s hoping for a House of Cards-style drama, but shorter. How, exactly, that will work is hard to imagine, perhaps because House of Cards and Game of Thrones-style TV shows are hour-long episodes for a reason: there’s a lot of in-depth story telling that has to be crammed into each episode, which in turn help to make each episode rich and stimulating to the viewer.

According to reports, Katzenberg has been barking up trees such as Verizon’s former (and recently departed) Go90 head Marni Walden, to YouTube’s lead Susan Wojcicki, to the majors in content production like Disney, Fox, WME and CBS. In order to lure in more content partners, Katzenberg has promised content producers rates that are closer to traditional television than the $5,000 a minute spent on mobile video, according to a report from Variety, and will be allowing the content producers to retain the rights to the content.

The main bright spot for New TV will be its monetization: the service won’t have any ads and will instead rely on sponsorship and brand integrations. It’s unclear if Katzenberg will seek out distribution partners a la mobile carriers like Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile for the service, or if it’ll partner with social apps like Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat to get in front of eyeballs.

Those are important pieces of the puzzle that will need to be executed precisely if the service will survive and succeed where its predecessors have failed.

Katzenberg’s idea sounds a lot like Warner Bros’ earlier online original, a very well received drama series named H+. The series, which followed a group of strangers during a biohazard outbreak, was compelling content, cut up into very short four-minute episodes. One of the big lessons of that content experiment was that fans were perfectly happy bingeing on the show in hour-long chunks, which amounted to about fifteen episodes. Consumers will spend hours watching content they like, regardless of its form, or platform, assuming there are hours of content available to watch and they have the time to do so.

Viewers love high quality scripted drama content; viewers are also supposed to love short-form video that can be watched on mobile – well there is YouTube after all. But there may be a reason previous efforts to merge these two trends have fallen short: premium scripted content may just be best enjoyed at home, without distractions; while short form video can be consumed on the go, amid distractions.

Kaztenberg claims he’s engineering an entirely new content format. So perhaps New TV content will look unlike anything we’ve seen yet. But more likely, it’ll disappear down the large crevice it is hoping to bridge – the gap between the TV and the smartphone.