Jeffrey Katzenberg, the veteran studio chief behind some of Hollywood's most beloved animated features, is betting that people want their entertainment in bite-size portions.

But nobody knows how much they're willing to chew.

Katzenberg is creating a new start-up, tentatively titled NewTV, that will produce short-form, high-end content and bring it to mobile devices, he has said at several conferences and in the occasional interview.

By essentially merging the quality of HBO with the ubiquity of YouTube, he is creating a model that combines the best of two worlds. Or will it mash them together uneasily?

Advertisement

NewTV announced last week that Meg Whitman will join as chief executive of the start-up.

An entertainment start-up seemed like an improbable leap for the executive who has spent most of the past quarter-century atop the likes of eBay and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise.

It was hardly the only eye-catching move Katzenberg has made lately. NewTV has by turns been tantalising and confounding many people in Hollywood since it was unveiled last year as a venue for high-end content.

By high-end content, Katzenberg means not just a better skateboard video, or even a decent reality TV show or up-the-middle scripted series. He means top-level, Game of Thrones-calibre entertainment. And fully fleshed out and self-contained stories at that.

Katzenberg has, according to trade stories and producers familiar with these conversations, been in discussions with the many blue-chip creators he knows from his years at Paramount, Disney, DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation.

The content he is after aims to be award-worthy, binge-ready original series. Only instead of bingeing them over 12 hours on a rainy Saturday, you'll binge them in a half-hour while waiting at the dentist's office.

Two arguments underlie the NewTV experiment. One is, essentially, locational. Now, if you want to watch the best and brightest of all the TV series, you need to commit to many hours in front of a laptop or television screen.

But in front of a laptop or TV screen is not where many people - at least many people in the 18-to-34 demographic that NewTV is targeting - spend their time.

Advertisement
Meg Whitman will join as chief executive of the start-up. Picture / AP
Meg Whitman will join as chief executive of the start-up. Picture / AP

A 2016 ComScore report found that 20 per cent of millennials didn't regularly use a computer but that 97 per cent of them use mobile devices.

So if you want to reach 18-to-34-year-olds, why not find them where they are?

Secondly, many short-form mobile videos that people in this demographic watch, on YouTube or Facebook or anywhere else, are of the nonprofessional variety. This is not by design, NewTV argues. They would watch higher-quality stuff, if only it was available. So why not give it to them?

Yet some entertainment-world skeptics, who talked to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity so as not to imperil relationships, murmur that these platforms have developed separately for a reason.

Not by accident do many consumers watch lower-end videos on their phone - these videos are as disposable and ephemeral as the mobile experience itself.

Katzenberg is betting that consumers are simply habituated to watching better TV on TV, and it doesn't have to be this way. People also associate premium with long, and Katzenberg thinks they shouldn't.

Advertisement

There's another wrinkle.

"What NewTV is betting is that you can invent a format so good that it will drive a platform. And that really has never been done," said a digital-entertainment executive who asked not to be identified so as not to jeopardise a potential relationship with Katzenberg.

In other words, most new platforms - even television - have existed independently before they try to hone a new type of content. NewTV is trying to achieve the difficult task of doing it in reverse.

NewTV has reportedly been seeking as much as US$2 billion ($2.7b) in funding; high-end creators don't come cheap. That means, from a business-model standpoint, a lot of customers will need to sign on.

Katzenberg has not said whether this will be primarily a paid or ad-driven model. But premium TV has historically been subscriber-based. He and Whitman declined to comment for this article.

Still, many are heartened by what Katzenberg is attempting. They point foremost to his track record. He brought animation back from the dead at Disney with movies such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Advertisement

And he co-founded a flourishing studio from scratch, DreamWorks SKG, at a time when everyone said it couldn't be done. He understands the content zeitgeist and the business odds.

And does he understand the technology?

Well, that brings this back to Whitman. The news about her being hired (she'll also enlist a chief creative officer) caused plenty of head-scratching. Yes, she spent some years earlier in her career at Disney, but it's not what she has been doing for the past quarter-century.

Could someone whose resume shouts tech executive at big companies have a lot to lend to a start-up trying to sign director-producer-writer J.J. Abrams? And Whitman has acknowledged that being a technology whiz is not among her core traits.

But she presided over eBay at a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was not only smaller but also one of the most compelling, compulsive digital experiences out there. Whitman's understanding of how to reach people with what they want to see, and with what will keep them coming back, is hard to deny.

"Her leadership, operational expertise, and deep understanding of technology and consumer behaviour will be invaluable in creating the future of mobile entertainment," Katzenberg said in a statement announcing Whitman's new role.

Advertisement