At a Liberty Media investor event yesterday, Liberty Chairman, John Malone, drew a comparison between Netflix and HBO. He was discussing the relationship between his Starz unit and Netflix, and seemed to be acknowledging the amount of power that Netflix is gaining as home video moves online.
It's an interesting question - Is Netflix the next HBO? What are the similarities, and does it make sense for Netflix to follow a similar strategy?
Arguably, the master stroke was developing dramatic series which took advantage of the commercial-free, less restrictive environment of pay cable. First with OZ and then with The Sopranos, HBO was able to attract loyal audiences looking for edgier entertainment. Its original series have allowed it to become a brand that stands for a certain type and quality of programming.
The question is whether Netflix will use its market reach to develop its own original programming and expand its brand, as HBO did in the 1990's. Actually, in 2006, Netflix started the Red Envelope Entertainment division, first for providing distribution to original independent films, and then as a platform for developing its own programming. However, that division was closed in 2008 -- ostensibly because Netflix did not want to compete with its studio partners.
My thought is that the vision was right on target, but perhaps just slightly premature. Netflix currently has about 15 million subscribers. HBO now has over 41 million. So, Netflix still doesn't control nearly as many eyeballs as HBO, but it does command enough market share that it can't be ignored. If the Netflix numbers continue to rise (in the face of stiff competition from Apple, Amazon, Walmart and others, including HBO), then studios won't be able to dictate the deal terms. And if Netflix can use original programming to attract even more subscribers, then the studios will have to continue to supply films as the cost of not being available through Netflix would just be too great.
Eyeballs equal power in the media business. It's always been true and nothing has changed in that regard. If Netflix can dominate the streaming business and expand its market reach, then you can bet that it will be back in the original content business. (Pete Putman at HDTV Magazine reached a similar conclusion in a recent article.)
I have always liked Netflix' prospects. I think they do a lot of things very well, and make very few mistakes. Their primary risk at this point is that increased competition will put pressure on prices and their margins will suffer. That would be bad in the short run, but if they can continue to expand their volume, the original programming opportunity will remain viable.
I'm interested to see what happens next. These are very exciting times in the media business, my friends. Stay tuned.