In an interview at Lionsgate’s first investor day, Liberty Media chairman John Malone praised Netflix as having a “nirvana business model” while calling out traditional pay-TV distributors for being “asleep at the switch” as their legacy “toll gate” video business models were disrupted. Malone highlighted Netflix’s direct-to-consumer, global scale and complete control as key benefits.
However, Malone wasn’t all doom and gloom about traditional pay-TV distributors, which he sees as morphing from being “video delivery businesses” to “connectivity businesses.” Malone thinks this change in mindset will lead to distributors breaking with tradition and offering premium networks such as Starz in combination with broadband, as opposed to being available only on top of multichannel bundles. But he would not provide any timetable for when this shift might occur.
This past Wednesday, Starz, the Liberty Media-owned premium cable network, licensed its "Starz Play" broadband service to Netflix. The three year deal makes all of Starz's 2,500 movies, TV shows and concerts available to Netflix subscribers using its Watch Instantly streaming video feature. Very coincidentally I happened to be at Starz yesterday for an unrelated Liberty meeting, and had a chance to speak to Starz CEO Bob Clasen, who I've known for a while, to learn more.
On the surface the deal is an eye-opener as it gives a non-cable/telco/satellite operator access to Starz's trove of prime content. As I've written in the past, cable channels, which rely on their traditional distributors for monthly service fees, have been super-sensitive to not antagonizing their best customers when trying to take advantage of new distribution platforms. This deal, which uses broadband-only distribution to reach into the home, no doubt triggers "over-the-top" or "cable bypass" alarm bells with incumbent distributors.
Then there is the value-add/no extra cost nature of Netflix's Watch Instantly feature. That there is no extra charge to subscribers for Starz's premium content (as there typically is when subscribing to Starz through cable for example) raises the question of whether Starz might have given better pricing to Netflix to get this deal done than it has to its other distributors.
But Bob is quick to point out that in reality, the Netflix deal is a continuation of Starz's ongoing push into broadband delivery begun several years ago with its original RealNetworks deal and continued recently with Vongo. To Starz, Netflix is another "affiliate" or distributor, which, given its tiny current online footprint does not pose meaningful competition to incumbent distributors. With only about 17 million out of a total 100 million+ U.S. homes subscribing to Starz, broadband partnerships are seen as a sizable growth opportunity by the company.
Further, Starz has been aggressively pitching online deals to cable operators and telcos for a while now, though only the latter has bit so far (Verizon's FiOS is an announced customer). Cable operators seem interested in the online rights, but have been reluctant to pay extra for them as Starz requires.
Bob also noted that Starz's wholesale pricing was protected in its Netflix deal, and that for obvious reasons of not hurting its own profitability, Starz has strong incentives to preserve incumbent deal terms in all of its new platform deals.
To me, all of this adds up to at least a few things. First is that Netflix must be paying up in a big way to license Starz Play. I assume this is an obvious recognition by Netflix that it needed more content to make Watch Instantly more compelling (see also Netflix's recent Disney Channel and CBS deals). Since it's not charging subscribers extra, Netflix is making a bet that over time - and aided by its Roku and other broadband-to-the-TV devices - Watch Instantly will succeed and as a result, will drive down its costs by reducing the number of DVDs the company needs to buy and ship. That seems like a smart long-term bet as the broadband era unfolds.
And while I agree that Starz Play on Netflix doesn't represent real competition to cable, telco and satellite outlets today, it's hard not to see it as a signal that traditional distributors are losing their hegemony in premium video distribution. (for another example of this, see Comedy Central's licensing of Daily Show and Colbert to Hulu). As I've said for a while, over the long term, the inevitability of broadband all the way to the TV portends significant disruption to current distribution models. I see Netflix at the forefront of this disruptive process.
What do you think? Post a comment now.