Netflix Is a Streamer, but It's Not the Only One


As Netflix prepares to chop up its DVD-by-mail and streaming services, there's no doubt that we're at a crossroads in the movie rental landscape. Amazon Instant VideoNetflix continues to watch its subscribers depart and its stock price plummet in the wake of price hikes and, subsequently, its shocking decision to split off the DVD-by-mail service into a separate company rebranded as Qwikster.

Amazon, meanwhile, looks Prime-d -- pun intended -- to sweep into the void. It acquired the rights to FOX movies and television shows last week and will make them available on its Instant Video service, which, at $79 a year, undercuts a subscription to Netflix streaming and includes other ancillary perks like free two-day shipping on Amazon orders.

Still, Netflix isn't going quietly into that good night. It also announced a big acquisition last week -- the rights to Dreamworks motion pictures -- a major boon to a burgeoning collection because of the massive catalog of family fare produced under the Dreamworks umbrella. Think Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar and so on.

And Monday we learned that Netflix, yes Netflix, is going head to head with premium cable network Showtime for the rights to the Arrested Development miniseries.

Truth be told, it's hard to say where all this is going. If I had to guess, I'd say the days of hegemony are a thing of the past. Netflix wasn't the replacement for Blockbuster, just a replacement, probably the first of many. It might seem like the sky is falling for Netflix, indeed that seems to be the sentiment out of Wall Street.

Analysts say the market has doubts about whether Netflix can hold their own. "I think people are concerned about the competitive pressures," Eric Wold at Merriman Capital told Reuters. "As more competitors add content and add new ways for consumers to access that content, it could pose a risk to Netflix." The past few weeks have been murder for Netflix who hiked their prices in July and announced this month that they were spinning off their DVD-by-mail business into a separate company called Qwikster. Plenty of people think the spiraling stock price could be another sign that is curtains for the long-time pioneer in streaming video service, but as Seeking Alpha points out in a numbers-heavy post, now might also be a good time to get a great bargain on Netflix stock.

But it seems clear to me that Netflix is intent on remaining a player, and it surely has plenty of capital with which to maintain some foothold in the market.

Indeed, Wired's Tim Carmody makes the case, in an excellent article, that we should think of Netflix as a premium movie channel instead of a 21st century proxy for your neighborhood Blockbuster.

I’d never seen this Shrek before this summer, but my niece and nephew love it. They watch it on HBO On Demand over and over again. And after the fifth Shrek movie is released in 2013, they’ll probably watch that over and over again, too. Except instead of HBO, they’ll be watching it on Netflix.

All of Dreamworks Animation’s 2013 releases will be on Netflix. They won’t be on HBO. That’s the new deal Netflix has struck with Dreamworks, and the best news Netflix has had in weeks. Netflix will have the exclusive rights to Dreamworks films in the “pay TV window” — i.e., after the film is released, when the movies would normally appear on pay-per-view and premium cable channels like HBO or Starz.

The studio’s back catalog — Kung Fu Panda et al. — will also be rolling out to Netflix over time, although exactly what and when remains a mystery. That catalog isn’t gigantic — Dreamworks Animation hasn’t been making films forever — and it’s not as critically acclaimed from top-to-bottom as rival Pixar. But it’s solid, it plugs the family movie hole Starz left behind, it’s all Netflix’s, and it’s not the only studio deal Netflix can make.

This is why I keep circling back to this idea: Netflix is a video channel. It’s a mistake to treat Netflix as if it were a substitute for cable, rather than what it’s become: a premium pay network every bit the rival of Starz, Showtime or HBO. Netflix just has a distribution model that bypasses the cable operators altogether.

Of course, Carmody goes on to acknowledge that Netflix, in its current precarious position, is ripe for a potential takeover from a company, like Amazon, which is well positioned to help the streaming service penetrate into an array of different areas and, more importantly, different devices.

Even if that happens, I don't think we're heading for a unified theory of movie/television rentals. Media consumption just hasn't trended that way over the last, oh, 50 years or so, so there's no reason to think this realm will be any different.