• Why Netflix's Long-Term Focus in New Warner Bros. Deal is a Win for Everyone

    Netflix's new deal with Warner Bros., in which it agreed to a 28 day "DVD window" for new releases, in exchange for greater access to WB's films for its Watch Instantly streaming feature and reduced pricing on its own DVD purchases, is further proof that Netflix is squarely focused on the long-term. That's not only smart for Netflix, it's also a win for Hollywood studios and also for consumers.

    With 11 million subscribers and growing, Netflix has emerged as one of Hollywood's most important home video customers. This dynamic has only increased recently due to slowing sales of DVDs (down another 13% in 2009) and Netflix's dominance in DVD rentals. Yet Netflix is viewed warily by Hollywood, primarily due to concerns that in the digital age, Netflix could gain too much power over Hollywood's fate. This concern was reinforced by Netflix's deal with premium cable channel Starz, a de facto end-run around Hollywood in which Netflix got streaming access to certain Disney, Sony and Lionsgate films.

    As I've pointed out many times (as recently as this past Monday, in item #6), despite the Starz deal and the impressive adoption of Watch Instantly to date, Netflix faces a major challenge in building out its catalog of recent films for streaming use. Part of the challenge is Hollywood's "windowing" approach; in particular, other premium channels like HBO, Showtime and Epix have made significant financial commitments for electronic distribution during certain time periods that effectively preclude Netflix gaining streaming rights. Because much of Netflix's value proposition relies on its vast DVD selection (100K+ titles currently), if its streaming catalog continues to look meager by comparison, then Netflix's goal of migrating its users to streaming delivery over time will be seriously undermined.

    That's where the new WB deal comes in. While the companies didn't disclose which titles or how many would be available, my guess is that the benefits of the deal, when it's fully implemented, will be noticeable to Netflix's subscribers or Netflix wouldn't have signed on. While WB is just one studio, if the new deal can be used as a template, Netflix could have a solid plan for gaining more films without paying big bucks. And the studios would get greater leverage against Redbox, which is viewed with even greater alarm by much of Hollywood.

    Netflix's focus on the long term is smart strategy, and complements well the company's near-term emphasis on riding the convergence wave by embedding its Watch Instantly software in every conceivable living room device (e.g. PS3, Xbox, Roku, Bravia, Blu-ray players, etc.). It's also a strategy that benefits Hollywood. By creating a situation where studios preserve as much of their DVD sales as possible (allegedly 75% of a film's total DVD sales occur in the first 4 weeks following release), Netflix is helping Hollywood gracefully wind down and milk the DVD business.

    Not surprisingly, consumers' first reaction to the deal was sour. Yesterday the Twittersphere was alight with grousing about the 28 day DVD window and how Netflix was "selling out its customers." Some even talked about canceling their Netflix service. I think most of this is idle chatter. Netflix has publicly said that just 30% of its DVD rentals come from recent releases (though it is likely that for Netflix's heaviest DVD renters, recent releases are far more important). In the end, Netflix is making a calculated bet that it can manage the potential subscriber consequences of creating the DVD window in order to benefit its larger goal of migrating its business to online delivery.

    If Netflix is right, and it can sign on additional studios to similar deals, then ultimately consumers will win. That's because, as Netflix proves in the value of streaming, it will be able to offer improved terms to studios, resulting in Netflix getting better and better access to films. But this will be a gradual process that unfolds over time. Whereas consumers always "want everything yesterday," the reality is that if Hollywood and Netflix can avoid disruption and instead preserve most of their economics by gracefully transitioning their businesses to digital delivery, consumers stand a better chance of continuing to receive the kind of premium-quality (i.e. expensive to produce) films they value. The demise of the newspaper industry is a cautionary example of what happens when disruption instead prevails and an industry's traditional economics are destroyed.

    We are still on the front end of seismic shifts that will alter how Hollywood's films are distributed to consumers. By focusing on the long-term, as evidenced by its WB deal, Netflix is playing an important role in increasing the odds of a successful transition.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.