• 2009 Prediction #5: Microsoft Will Acquire Netflix

    As I promised, I've tried to make my 2009 broadband predictions bolder as the week has progressed. So to cap off the week, I'm offering up a doozy: my 2009 prediction #5 is that Microsoft will acquire Netflix sometime next year.

    Before I get into my rationale, I want to be perfectly clear that I have absolutely no insider information, nor have I talked to anyone at either company about this prediction, which is solely my own personal opinion. I don't directly own stock in either company, though I may have some in various mutual funds I own. This prediction doesn't constitute advice to purchase stock in either company. I'm an industry analyst who happens to believe that this deal would make a lot of strategic sense for both companies based on my assumptions about broadband video's future.

    First, it's important to understand that the single biggest consumer market opportunity in the next 10 years will be delivering premium-quality video (mainly hit TV programs and movies) over broadband Internet connections to TVs. Broadband is poised to disrupt the current providers of multichannel video (cable/satellite/telco) which generate about $80-100 billion of annual revenue in the U.S. alone. Rich potential rewards await successful new broadband-only or "over the top" entrants.

    While Microsoft has an impressive portfolio of consumer-facing products (e.g. Xbox, Silverlight, WMP, IE, MSN, etc.), the reality is that today it lacks a well-branded service offering with sufficient consumer traction to credibly vie for a piece of the multichannel video market that will be up for grabs. It is unimaginable to me that Microsoft will continue to content itself with focusing only on the enablers like those listed above, along with its Mediaroom IPTV software platform, while others launch new broadband video services to consumers. Further, since the race is actually already well underway, the classic "build vs. buy" analysis tilts heavily toward "buy," especially if a jewel like Netflix is possibly available.

    Another Microsoft motivator is that its two keenest competitors in the consumer space, Apple and Google, also happen to be the two best-positioned companies to deliver premium video to the TV using broadband. In iTunes, Apple has by far the most successful consumer-paid download store which is already highly relevant to studios and networks (witness NBC's decision to return to iTunes earlier this fall), not to mention the most successful devices (iPod and iPhone). iTunes is Apple's springboard into disrupting the traditional multichannel video model, though exactly how the company will do so is yet to be determined. Its initial foray with Apple TV is hardly the company's final word. And with Steve Jobs' personal stake in Disney, Apple has a lot of insight and leverage to get things done in Hollywood.

    Meanwhile Google, when combined with YouTube, has the highest potential for delivering an ad-supported premium broadband video service. I recognize that the operative word in that sentence is "potential." YouTube still has lots of monetization challenges. And though it has made great strides adding premium video to its site in '08, I doubt many users yet associate YouTube with premium video the way they do with Hulu for example, or any of the network sites for that matter. Further, YouTube has made little progress in articulating a strategy for getting to the TV. In a post I did earlier this year, "YouTube: Over-the-Top's Best Friend" I suggested that it would be an appealing partner for all of the over-the-top device makers, who desperately need content and a brand to penetrate the market.

    Despite these shortcomings, when you consider the upside of Google Content Network and the reality that YouTube dominates video usage with 40% share of all monthly streams, its potential from an ad-supported standpoint is impressive.

    Meanwhile Netflix, with over 8 million subscribers, is the most successful video subscription service outside of the cable/satellite/telco industry. Nobody else is even close. Netflix's big opportunity is to morph its DVD-by-mail business into an online delivery model. If it succeeds it could pose significant new on-demand competition to today's multichannel providers (something that cable operators now well appreciate according to several people I've spoken to).

    2008 has been a very good year for Netflix in broadband. It has beefed up its WI catalog to 12,000 titles by doing deals with Starz, CBS and Disney. It has gained a toehold in the home with its Roku box, and by integrating with Xbox 360 and LG and Samsung Blu-ray players. By offering WI as a value add instead of an extra charge, it has further strengthened its customer relationships and begun collecting valuable data about what impact WI can have on future subscriber acquisition costs and retention tactics.

    As I've pointed out previously, Netflix's problem is that growing its WI catalog, so that it can be perceived as a bona fide replacement for DVDs-by-mail, is a tough challenge. In most of its content deals, Netflix has DVD-based subscription rights, but not electronic or online subscription rights. That's why it only offers 12,000 titles on WI out of its total catalog of 100,000+ titles on DVD.

    The major pay TV channels (HBO, Showtime and Starz) have paid billions of dollars for these exclusive electronic rights. Though Netflix was able to do a content deal with Starz, I think similar deals with HBO or Showtime are highly unlikely. Neither network is nearly as committed to online, and both no doubt view Netflix as an eventual competitor.

    Reviewing Netflix's recent "Investor Day" presentation, it is clear that the company is taking a concerted, yet gradual approach to online distribution, at one point stating that the evolution to full streaming will happen over 20 years. Since Netflix is a public company and has to manage Wall Street's expectations and its quarter-to-quarter earnings, it must emphasize gradual, not disruptive, change. One look at the gorgeous hockey stick graphs of Netflix's historical revenue and earnings growth over the years attests to its "steady-Eddie" approach.

    Indeed, while that approach is admirable, I think broadband represents a game-changing opportunity for Netflix. As such, rather than easing into it as the company appears to be doing, it should instead be pursuing it full bore, capitalizing on the opening competitors like Apple and Google have currently created. However, doing so will require vastly more resources, as well as insulation from public market pressures. So here are some of the appealing points of a Microsoft acquisition:

    • Microsoft would instantly give Netflix new economic clout in Hollywood to compete with the pay TV networks' studio deals as they come up for renewal, scrambling the traditional "windowing" paradigm and clearing a path to a far stronger future WI catalog.
    • Microsoft would also allow Netflix to build a business model where it pays broadcast networks a fee for their programs. Over time these payments could become an important adjunct to broadcasters' traditional advertising model (much like cable networks' rely on both affiliate fees and advertising). If successful, Netflix could possibly even gain preferred terms relative to broadcasters' distribution to ad-supported online aggregators.
    • As the WI model takes shape, Netflix would also be in a totally new position to approach certain cable networks - who are among the most reluctant to embrace broadband delivery for their full episodes - with financial incentives that could rival what they currently collect from their cable/satellite/telco affiliates. Deals with cable networks would give potential "cord cutters" more comfort in doing so, while also pressuring the close ties between cable networks and operators.
    • Just as Google has given YouTube financial cover for its spiraling bandwidth/delivery costs, Microsoft could do the same for Netflix, as it encourages its subscribers to use WI more heavily.
    • Last but not least, there's Microsoft's MSN, which not only represents a solid intra-company promotional platform for Netflix's subscriber acquisition, but also the possibility of a new Netflix ad-supported service. This isn't something the company has ever pursued, but is an intriguing as a possible competitor to the likes of Hulu and others. It would give Netflix a unique hybrid paid/free model.

    So that's the strategic rationale. Then there's a lot of other existing inter-company stuff that lays nice groundwork for a deal: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is on Microsoft's board, Netflix is now using Silverlight for WI, XBox has recently integrated WI in it NXE release, etc. In short, these are two companies that already know each other well. And on the financial front, with a current market cap of $1.6B, even with an acquisition premium, Netflix would be a relatively small bite for Microsoft (particularly compared with $45B, which Microsoft was prepared to shell out for Yahoo!).

    Successful as Netflix is, it is still a relative minnow swimming in a sea of whales that will be competing for the biggest consumer prize of the next 10 years. Netflix has an impressive track record and it could very well succeed by remaining independent. But it (and its stock price) will be under continuous scrutiny as everyone from Apple to Google to Comcast to Amazon to Hulu to countless others launch broadband initiatives that pressure Netflix's model.

    Meanwhile, Microsoft has significant financial resources, but it lacks the ability to be a credible competitor in the broadband-to-the-TV race. Together, I believe they could turn Netflix into the single-most potent broadband competitor to today's multichannel video providers. My bet is that in '09 the two companies will come to the same conclusion.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

    2009 Prediction #1: The Syndicated Video Economy Accelerates

    2009 Prediction #2: Mobile Video Takes Off, Finally

    2009 Prediction #3: Net Neutrality Remains Dormant

    2009 Prediction #4: Ad-Supported Premium Video Aggregators Shakeout