Thursday, July 22, 2010, 9:32 AM ET|Posted by Will RichmondNetflix reported its Q2 '10 results late yesterday and once again the company turned in an impressive performance. Netflix added 1,034,000 subscribers, by far its best Q2 ever, to end the quarter at just over 15 million subs. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said right up front in the management discussion that streaming is the key catalyst in the company's accelerating growth, with 61% of current subs now streaming at least 15 minutes in Q2, up from 55% in Q1 '10 and 48% in Q4 '09. After reviewing the company's Q2 results and listening to the earnings call, following are my 5 key takeaways:
1. Netflix really is becoming more about streaming with each passing quarter
It's hard to underestimate the pervasive role streaming now has on the company, in its value proposition, subscriber acquisition model, content acquisition approach, DVD and postage expenses, competitive situation, technology infrastructure and R&D agenda, partnerships, etc.
Though 61% of all subs are now using streaming, I would guess that practically all recently added subs are. The company is going through quite a transition. This quarter, CFO Barry McCarthy mentioned that early streaming adopter's behavior of reduced DVD usage has now reached Netflix's mainstream subscriber base. DVD shipments are still growing, but at a slower rate, due to streaming-for-disc substitution, which in turn improves margins (it costs Netflix around $.85-$.90 round-trip to deliver a disc and less than a nickel to deliver a full streaming movie). Anecdotally I continually hear about users now first surfing Netflix's streaming catalog before they surf the cable dial.
2. Exclusive content gains in importance, increasing competition for movies
I've long believed that Netflix's move into streaming would eventually compel it to license movies that would have traditionally gone to premium networks like HBO/Showtime/Epix. Netflix's growing financial strength, brand loyalty and large sub base all position it as a potent new outlet for movies.
When I interviewed CEO Reed Hastings in May, he maintained that Netflix wants to be an outlet for premium cable networks rather than a competitor. Now however, Netflix is saying "At this point we can start to afford some major TV shows and movies on an exclusive basis, and plan going forward on a mix of more-expensive exclusive content and lower-cost non-exclusive content." That means Netflix is essentially going to compete for content with traditional premium TV networks. This will begin modestly, as with its recent Relativity Media deal for exclusive rights to a smallish set of its movies. And Netflix will still be a great outlet for premium networks' stellar original programming. But it will clearly be another voice at the negotiating table for electronic distribution of movies.
3. Going forward, TV is as important as movies
While Netflix is traditionally associated with movies, with streaming moving to center stage, Netflix now sees licensing TV shows as equally important. To the extent that its licenses are exclusive and/or pre-empt traditional distribution paths, this could be quite significant. Recent acquisitions of full seasons of shows such as 24, Nip/Tuck, The Family Guy and others, from networks/producers such as Fox, MTV and Warner Bros is an indication of Netflix's push into TV, with an emphasis on catalog, not current seasons. As Netflix grows its roster of TV programs I see at least 2 key implications: first, that Hulu Plus's value proposition gets pinched (more on that below), and second, that the traditional role of TV syndication for re-runs gets narrowed.
4. Competition from Hulu Plus and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs)
During Q2 Hulu Plus launched and there's been a lot of speculation about how competitive it is with Netflix streaming. Hastings acknowledged Hulu as a direct competitor and that "we're not going to underestimate them." Still, on the earnings call he also noted "they're too small to matter yet." I agree Hulu Plus should be on Netflix's radar, but with Netflix making an aggressive move into TV, Hulu Plus has steep challenges to compete and grow beyond its core broadcast network catalog. The issue comes down to resources. In this battle, Netflix is Goliath, able to write far bigger checks to Hollywood than can Hulu. The recent Nip/Tuck example is illustrative - a reasonably popular, tier 2 cable network show that Netflix won.
While Netflix acknowledges Hulu Plus, it's real competitive concern is how it fits into a landscape dominated by MVPDs (or pay-TV provider as I usually call them). Netflix believes it is a low cost supplement to pay-TV and not a replacement that causes cord-cutting. In the May interview Hastings called TV Everywhere efforts "frustratingly brilliant" and while their rollout has been underwhelming, if they start to ramp up that could put pressure on Netflix's growth. We'll see.
5. Netflix availability on 100 million devices is huge competitive barrier
Netflix also said yesterday that by end of year it expects its streaming to be available on 100 million devices (e.g. Blu-ray, gaming consoles, connected TVs, iPads, Roku, etc.). In a world that still lacks application integration standards, Netflix has done the heavy lifting to get onto all of these devices that nobody else has (by contrast for example, Hulu Plus is only available on iPad/iPhone/iPod and Samsung connected devices). While others scramble to catch up, Netflix is already moving on to improve its streaming experience, for example, planning a new UI for PS3 among other things. Until connected devices embrace an open, standardized, browser-based model (which will begin with Google TV's launch later this year), Netflix has erected a huge competitive barrier. Once again, having deep pockets has real benefits.
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