This sub-bullet in CNBC’s “prepare you for the earnings report” article caught my attention:
On the surface, it’s clearly true. One bad earnings report won’t power Disney+ or HBO Max to 150 million subscribers. But as I reflected on it, the key variable is “when is soon?” By the end of the year, sure, Netflix is safe. But what about the end of 2020? Or 2021? If someone does catch up to Netflix, then the streaming wars will have a new champion.
Let’s see if the earnings report sheds any light on that question.
Most earnings reports don’t reveal monumental shifts in strategy. This report would mostly qualify, except that Netflix did rule out a key potential revenue stream in fairly definitive terms.
At the end of last year, when it came to a Netflix show airing on a linear channel, I called Netflix the “company of Never”:
This earnings report doubled down on the fact that Netflix will NOT roll out advertising any time soon. I believe them and agree with this position. Adding advertisements will concretely change the user experience, likely leading to higher subscriber churn than the ad wizards begging for it expect.
I have softened on the position of “never” recently. I do appreciate Netflix’s relentless focus. A good strategy is a focused strategy, and saying “No” to efforts that divide your energy can be a wise tactic. But let’s not go overboard. For example, releasing episodes weekly.
I’d argue that decision is not material to the Netflix customer experience. Instead, binge releasing is a decision they made, and now cling to unnecessarily. Why isn’t, for example, Stranger Things 3 being released weekly? Having one series go weekly won’t lead to customer churn. There may be a 10,000 angry fans on the internet who want the binge, but again that’s noise, not signal. (I like this issue so much, I wrote an article for another publication coming out soon.)
Oh, and one other “never” that should really worry Reed Hastings.
The Never That Terrifies Me: Aggregation
If I understand the Netflix bulls correctly, the sky-high stock price—if it isn’t based on past performance being sky-high—is due to the fact that at some point, Netflix will be TV. Netflix isn’t just “another streamer”, it’s the future of TV. But is that future already in the rear view mirror?
Currently, many people get their HBO, Showtime and Starz through Amazon Channels. More will get Disney+, HBO and Showtime through Hulu. Apple will have another set of channels. Already, people experience streaming through Roku, and they added the ability to buy channels too.
In other words, as Ben Thompson coined, the streamers are getting aggregated.
Eventually, the aggregators will offer bundles or discounts. Netflix, though, won’t be included because they have started pushing everyone to subscribe through the internet, instead of through those platforms. They did this because all those aggregators charge fees to sell the channels. I see two sub-optimal outcomes for Netflix as a result:
1. Eventually they get aggregated, which means they are “just” HBO.
2. They struggle to get awareness and presence outside the bundled aggregators.
Either choice is bad, and the sooner Netflix realizes it the better. (Hopefully more to come on this topic.)
Distribution: The good news
If avoiding digital bundlers is the downside case for Netflix, the upside case is integration with MVPD providers. Netflix announced that they will now be on AT&T’s devices that enable streaming integration. I’ve seen this work on Cox’s (via Comcast) Contour system, and it really does complement the cable bundle. Amazon Prime/Video is right behind them, and both are well ahead of the new streamers to catch up to their head start.
Competition: This is the low water mark for digital streaming.
Speaking of new SVODs, the other looming cloud over Netflix is the impending launch of the DAWNs: Disney, Apple, Warner-Media, and NBC-Universal. (Hat tip to Variety for coining.) Obviously, this will put pressure on Netflix to keep prices low to stay competitive—they are just below HBO in cost—and keep spending high to produce original content—they lap everyone when it comes to spending.
More interesting is how this will impact subscribers. While the launch of these streamers may inspire more cord cutting, which would benefit Netflix, the launch could also lead people to “cutflix” and trim the number of streaming options. But let’s move to our next section to discuss those implications.
How Many Subscribers Will Disney+ Grab?