How the movie studios caused Netflix’s problems

July 15, 2011
Adam Knight has a smart take on why Netflix is unbundling its DVD service from its streaming service:

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Adam Knight has a smart take on why Netflix is unbundling its DVD service from its streaming service:

The Internet’s memory is short so let’s go back a week ago to when Netflix lost the Sony movies and almost lost Starz. Why did that happen? Netflix WI subscribers passed a certain number specified in the contract with Starz and Sony and so they lost the right to stream that content. After some talks they came back online and now, one week later, Netflix is breaking apart their WI subscribers from their DVD subscribers. I find it hard to consider this a coincidence.

Having a ton of DVD viewers that are not using WI artificially inflated their WI subscriber numbers and almost invalidated a content contract. The only way to lower that number is to remove their access and only let people that want WI subscribe to it and pay into the service. So now WI isn’t a bundled service but one you ask for and pay for. This way, Netflix lowers their perceived WI subscriber count, keeps their content deals without renegotiations, and generally carries on.

This is all incredibly similar to the debate over cable-TV pricing, where the status quo is that you pay a flat fee for a bundle of channels, and there’s a vocal constituency — in which I include myself — saying that we should move to an a-la-carte pay-only-for-what-you-watch approach.

Netflix has always been about convenience, and a flat monthly fee, buried on your credit card statement somewhere, is certainly more convenient than paying for movies one at a time, as you have to do on say iTunes. But just because Netflix charges consumers on a flat-monthly-fee basis doesn’t mean that’s the best way for it to make deals with movie studios.

Up until now, it seems, Netflix has paid the studios a flat monthly fee, linked to the number of subscribers it has with access to their content. And when that got too expensive, it wound up cutting off streaming from its DVD subscribers to save on its own library-subscription costs.

Netflix paying a flat monthly fee for a bundle of movies is a bit like a cable-TV subscriber paying a flat monthly fee for a bundle of channels. The idea is that you pay the same amount each month whether you actually watch any movies or not; people who only use the DVD service and who never use the thrown-in streaming service are still very expensive for Netflix. (This is a big departure from the old business model, where people who barely used the DVD service were Netflix’s most profitable customers.)

It makes sense, under this model, for Netflix to unburden itself of DVD customers who barely stream any movies but who still cost Netflix itself lots of money in subscription fees. But that just means that everybody would be better off under a different model — for instance, one in which studios got paid every time one of their movies was streamed. (That kind of system would also be wonderful for independent filmmakers, who could upload their movies to Netflix at no charge and then get a stream of payments as and when Netflix’s subscribers started watching their film.)

Such a system would probably be better for the movie studios, too, since it would align their incentives with those of Netflix: they would get more money when people watched more movies and used Netflix more. As the studios and Netflix teamed up to persuade people to stream their movies, everybody would win.

So why isn’t this happening? Because the media business is calcified, and has to be dragged kicking and screaming into any kind of new business model. The studios have a reliable revenue stream from Netflix right now, and they have no real incentive to swap that for something less reliable, even if that would make them more money. It’s short-sighted, but Netflix certainly doesn’t have the power to make them change their minds. And so we end up with Netflix removing the streaming option from a large proportion of its subscribers — something I’m sure it absolutely hates to do. People are blaming Netflix here, but it’s surely more likely that the real villains of the story are the studios.


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