Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Reed Hastings Lays Out the Netflix Comeback Plan

Netflix wants investors to believe that it can restart its engine, which conked out yesterday. And it wants customers to believe it will have stuff they want to watch, even though it is losing some prize jewels.

You’ll forgive both groups if they’re a tad skeptical.

But if you feel like extending Reed Hastings the benefit of the doubt once more, then pay attention to the shareholder letter he published yesterday — in particular, the part where he explains the company’s content strategy.

In the end, if Hastings does deliver, this is the plan that will let him do it. And it’s a change from the company’s original content strategy, which means some folks haven’t figured it out yet.

Short version: When Netflix was a DVD company, it could afford to offer just about every movie or TV show every made. Now that it’s a streaming video company, it has to pick and choose.

So Hastings is trying to build an $8-a-month version of HBO — a network you pay for in addition to your regular TV package, not one that replaces it. And to make that work, he doesn’t have to have everything — but he has to have stuff you can’t get anywhere else.

Here’s an extended excerpt from his letter:

In television… the networks (ABC, FX, etc.) have long relied upon exclusive content to differentiate among themselves. As video moves online, so too has this practice of exclusive content. HBO has an exclusive license to recent Universal movies that includes its online HBO GO, for example. Netflix has signed exclusive licenses for DreamWorks Animation, for Relativity, and others. In episodic television, exclusives are also the norm. Netflix doesn’t license “Deadwood” from HBO because they see strategic value in keeping it exclusive. Netflix licenses “Mad Men” and “House of Cards” exclusively for much the same reason.

…We don’t have to “beat” Starz or other networks to succeed…We won’t have every movie or TV series; but we do provide enough value that consumers also want to subscribe to Netflix.

Any given consumer will have only one of DirecTV or Comcast, say, for their video service. That is classic either‐or competition. But with premium television networks like Netflix, the more good experiences there are, the more consumers are willing to spend to have multiple channels from which to get enjoyment.

Simple, right? The complicated part is the execution, of course. Hastings and his team have to figure out what their customers, and future customers, will value, and how much Hastings and his team can afford to pay for it.

And if they make the wrong calls — if it turns out that “House of Cards” isn’t interesting to anyone besides Kevin Spacey, or if the DreamWorks movies don’t satisfy people who used to watch the Pixar movies Netflix used to have — then Netflix really is toast.

But Hastings still has some 25 million subscribers, which means he still has plenty of money to keep betting — during his earnings call yesterday, he said the company’s content bill had shot up to $3.3 billion, up from $1.2 billion just a year ago. That’s not enough to pay for an unlimited supply of videos. But it should be enough to build a decent pay TV channel.


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