Netflix Doesn’t Want to Compete With Cable, Hulu, iTunes or GameFly. But HBO …
- Showing TV shows the day after they air, like Hulu does.
- Renting TV shows and movies one at a time, on demand, like Amazon, Apple, Walmart and many others do.
- Renting video games, like GameFly does.
- Getting more people to sign up for its DVD rental service, which is what Netflix used to do.
So what is Reed Hastings trying to do? He explained it again during his company’s conference call Wednesday night, but it’s the same message he’s been delivering for some time: He’s trying to create the Web version of HBO or Showtime.
That is: A premium cable channel that gives subscribers lots of viewing choices — including some stuff they can’t see anywhere else — but not unlimited choices.
That may disappoint some customers, investors and even reporters. Because the idea of a maverick Internet video service that could upend all of Hollywood and the TV industry sounds pretty exciting. People are still hoping for one, perhaps in the form of a “virtual” cable service — perhaps from Google or Apple — though yesterday Hastings said he doesn’t believe that’s happening, either.
But Hastings’s more modest ambitions are popular enough: He now has 23.5 million Web video subscribers worldwide, which is more than CBS’s Showtime has. And he is creeping up on Time Warner’s HBO, which has around 28 million subs. [UPDATE: Let’s make this an apples-to-apples comparison: Netflix has 21.7 million Web video subs in the U.S.; that 28 million number for HBO is US-only, too.]
Still, Hastings will need to keep reiterating his plan for some time in order for everyone to get it.
That’s partly his fault, because he hasn’t always been consistent. Last summer, for instance, he said the company would start marketing its DVD-only business again, but the company has since canceled those plans (and now rarely acknowledges DVDs exist, even though they are a huge business for Netflix). Last fall, Netflix also said it would get into the videogame rental business, but those plans have been scrapped, too.
“We are just another network competing for viewing time with, and licensing content from, other networks,” Hastings wrote in his letter to shareholders yesterday. That’s not quite as compelling as “All the movies and TV you’ll ever need, for $8 a month,” but it’s the truth, and it seems to work for lots of people.