Many journalists have offered their opinion on Netflix’s recent changes, its stock price decline, and their even more recent branding changes (Qwikster). Yet in each article, it appears as if the journalist all agree that the price move (creating separate prices for streaming and DVDs) was a bad strategic move. As an example, Techcrunch notes:
“Raising prices for those of us who opt for both streaming and DVDs would have been fine if Netflix had a deeper streaming catalog. But the gap is still too big, and the price hike seemed premature. Your customers are extremely loyal. Don’t piss them off.”
The problem with this perspective is, in my opinion, the price move was not a “decision,” so much as a “reality” presented to Netflix from the content owners in Hollywood.
Hollywood is a unique place, and understanding “business” in Silicon Valley leaves you ill-prepared to understand what makes Hollywood tick (for more on this see: When It Comes To Television Content, Affiliate Fees Make The World Go ‘Round). Very few people understand the key underpinning of the Netflix “original” business model — a 1908 Supreme Court Ruling known as “first sale doctrine.” From Wikipedia:
“The doctrine allows the purchaser to transfer (i.e., sell, lend or give away) a particular lawfully made copy of the copyrighted work without permission once it has been obtained.”
Because of the first-sale doctrine, any DVD reseller, including Netflix, can basically buy a DVD at WalMart, and turn around and rent it to someone else the very same day. The content owners have absolutely no control over whether the copy can be resold or rented. Period. As such, Netflix has the ability to rent (via DVD) any movie which has ever been sold on DVD, and its costs are relatively fixed as a result of the retail price of the actual DVD. In some ways, it is a perfect storm.
Fast forward to digital streaming and all bets are off. More specifically, the first-sale doctrine does not apply. That’s right. For DVDs, Netflix’s rights are unlimited and its costs are constrained. For digital, its rights are constrained and its costs are unlimited. In the absence of the first-sale doctrine, Netflix must negotiate each and every title, and the price of the right to stream that digital title is up to the whim of the content owner. For many titiles, you cannot even obtain digital rights, because they can’t find all the people the need to release the rights to do so.
So here is what I think happened with Netflix’s recent price change (for the record, I have no inside data here, this is just an educated guess). Netflix has for the past several years been negotiating with Hollywood for the digital rights to stream movies and TV series as a single price subscription to users. Their first few deals were simply $X million dollars for one year of rights to stream this particular library of films. As the years passed, the deals became more elaborate, and the studios began to ask for a % of the revenues. This likely started with a “percentage-rake” type discussion, but then evolved into a simple $/user discussion (just like the cable business). Hollywood wanted a price/month/user.
This is the point where Netflix tried to argue that you should only count users that actually connect digitally and actually watch a film. While they originally offered digital streaming bundled with DVD rental, many of the rural customers likely never actually “connect” to the digital product. This argument may have worked for a while, but eventually Hollywood said, “No way. Here is how it is going to work. You will pay us a $/user/month for anyone that has the ‘right’ to connect to our content – regardless of whether they view it or not.” This was the term that changed Netflix pricing.
With this new term, Netflix could not afford to pay for digital content for someone who wasn’t watching it. This forced the separation, so that the digital business model would exist on it’s own free and clear. Could Netflix have simply paid the digital fee for all its customers (those that watched and not)? One has to believe they modeled this scenario, and it looked worse financially (implied severe gross margin erosion) than the model they chose. It is what it is.
Netflix is an amazing company, and Reed Hastings is one of the best CEO’s Silicon Valley has ever seen. That said, at age fourteen, the digital world is forcing Netflix to execute a pivot. And the world they are entering is radically different from the world they are leaving. There is no longer a first-sale doctrine to keep things neat and tidy.