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April 6, 2020, 10:01 a.m. EDT

‘Honestly, we don’t know what to expect’: Meg Whitman’s big-money streaming startup Quibi launches in a new world

Service built for on-the-go consumption could now be for other ‘in-between moments’ like after Zoom meetings when it launches April 6, CEO Whitman says

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By Jon Swartz


Quibi
“Survive,” starring Sophie Turner, is one of the original scripted shows debuting on Quibi in April.

Quibi, the mobile streaming service that has raised a staggering $1.75 billion, debuts Monday in the most unpredictable of circumstances.

Most of the country sits at home, thirsting for any form of entertainment. But will they consume content that was designed for on-the-go viewing while commuting to work or waiting in line for coffee?

“Honestly, we don’t know what to expect,” Chief Executive Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. /zigman2/quotes/201998588/composite HPE +0.04%  and eBay Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204653455/composite EBAY +1.37%  , told MarketWatch in a phone interview Thursday. Given the current circumstance, she said, “People still have their in-between moments to be entertained, whether after home schooling or Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +4.08%  meetings.”

“We shall have to wait and see,” she added.

The Los Angeles-based startup has taken several steps to entice viewers, starting with a 90-day free trial that dwarfs similar offers from Netflix Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202353025/composite NFLX +0.65%   (30 days), Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +0.24%  (30), ViacomCBS Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200340870/composite VIAC +0.46%   /zigman2/quotes/206702514/composite VIACA +0.76%  (30), Walt Disney Co. /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -1.48%  (7), Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.38%  (7), and others. (Quibi’s offer ends April 30; after that, new subscribers get 14 days of free service. Quibi costs $4.99 a month with ads, and $7.99 without ads.)

It’s also reimagined its red-carpet debut. An in-person Hollywood premiere planned for April 5 at 3LABS, a state-of-the-art production and event facility, has been scrapped and replaced with an online event via Facebook Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +0.32%  Instagram on April 6, barring any last-minute changes.

One thing that has not changed is Quibi’s avalanche of programming. In its first year, it plans more than 175 original shows and 8,500 short episodes in 4- to 10-minute bursts, starring the likes of LeBron James, Chrissy Teigen and Ariana Grande.

Founded by showbiz legend Jeffrey Katzenberg and helmed by Whitman, it’s lined up a stable of launch and advertising partners that include Alphabet Inc.’s Google /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.93%  , /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.91%  , Anheuser-Busch InBev /zigman2/quotes/209225053/composite BUD +0.46%  , PepsiCo Inc. /zigman2/quotes/208744353/composite PEP +0.06%  , Walmart Inc. /zigman2/quotes/207374728/composite WMT -0.39%  , Procter & Gamble Co. /zigman2/quotes/202894679/composite PG -0.50% and T-Mobile US Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204659678/composite TMUS +1.89%  .

See also: CES 2020: Quibi is about to see if its $1.4 billion streaming bet will pay off

The coronavirus outbreak has forced Quibi — like most digital-entertainment platforms — to change its game plan. Disney, for example, has moved up release dates for theatrical movies like “Frozen 2” on Disney+, as well as TV programming, such as “The Last Dance,” the 10-part Michael Jordan documentary that debuts on ESPN on April 19 instead of June.

Still, there’s no clear-cut way of predicting the viewing habits of Americans faced with the most unusual of crisis. While streaming, videoconferencing and home-delivery use is up, some forms of entertainment are flagging.

The work-from-home edict has taken a huge bite out of podcast audiences in the U.S., resulting in an 8% drop last week and 2% dip the previous week, according to Podtrac . Newconsumer last week reported a 60% decline in CarPlay usage, and a 20% drop in weekday user sessions.

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Jon Swartz is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco, covering many of the biggest players in tech, including Netflix, Facebook and Google. Jon has covered technology for more than 20 years, and previously worked for Barron's and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @jswartz.

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