Matthew Ball has a long examination of the economics of Netflix's (NFLX) original content, looking at it on a show-by-show level. He starts with the cost of producing something like Arrested Development, and then works out how many extra subscribers Netflix would need to attract in order to justify that cost. (Or, how many extra months existing subscribers would have to keep their subscriptions for, compared to when they would unsubscribe otherwise.) He writes:
I'd argue that it is unlikely that Arrested Development will convince millions of users to stay an extra month in 2014 and 2015. If this is the case, the show would need to achieve its return in the immediate future. Therefore, if we don't see Netflix adding four to five million new subscribers during the quarter, one of two things are true. One, the show was a poor investment whose draw was a fraction of those anticipated, or two, the show is instead intended to convince many of the million subscribers currently churning away each month to defer their cancellation. This would be telling.
While Wall Street analysts are assessing the success of original content in terms of new customers, I believe Netflix's primary goal is on imminent service cancellations.
Ball lists three reasons why Netflix is making original content. There's the way in which that content keeps people subscribing for longer; the way in which original content will allow Netflix to raise its prices in the future; and then there's this:
Hedging against rising content licensing costs, which are up 700% over the past two years. While per-show licenses will never surpass the cost of original producing a series, their increases will make ongoing investments in House of Cards less expensive on a differential basis.
The ever-increasing cost of licensing is a huge issue for Netflix, and it's the reason why its business model is a very tough one: any time that Netflix builds up a profit margin, the studios will simply raise their prices until that margin disappears. Netflix had to pay a whopping $1.355 billion in licensing costs just in the first quarter of this year; that number is only going to increase, unless Netflix can find some other way of finding content. Like producing it in-house. At the margin, the more material that Netflix produces on its own, the less it needs from third parties, and the easier that Netflix finds it to say no to ridiculous demands.
But what Ball misses, I think, is that Netflix is playing a very, very long game here - not one measured in months or quarters, and certainly not one where original content pays for itself within a year. Netflix doesn't particularly want or need the content it produces in-house to make a profit on a short-term basis. Instead, it wants "to become HBO faster than HBO can become Netflix," in the words of its chief content officer Ted Sarandos.
Most importantly, the thing that Netflix aspires to, and which HBO (Time Warner (TWX)) already has, is an exclusive library of shows. If everything goes according to plan, then the Netflix of the future will be something people feel that they have to subscribe to, on the grounds that it's the only place where they can find shows A, B, C, and D. That's what it means to become HBO - and Netflix is fully cognizant that this is a process which takes many years and billions of dollars.
If Netflix gets there, then it becomes a license to print money, just as HBO is today. Shows like Arrested Development and House of Cards may or may not pay for themselves over the short term - in fact, they almost certainly won't. But that doesn't matter. In the long term, they will become part of a library which has massive value on two fronts: the shows can be licensed out in jurisdictions where Netflix doesn't want to compete, and they will also help make Netflix a service that can guarantee you a great show that you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it.
Ball says that "Arrested Development is an established brand that's intended to be a one-off event to convince its fanatical (and tech-savvy) followers to give Netflix's broader streaming service a try." That's true - narrowly. But the series is much more than that: it's also a way for Netflix to signal to all its current and potential subscribers that it is home to high-quality exclusive content, if and when they ever feel like giving it a try. In a weird way, Arrested Development is worth more as the number of people who haven't seen it goes up.
No one today is likely to subscribe to Netflix just on the grounds that they think they might like to watch Arrested Development at some point. But when there are dozens such shows - none of which are available anywhere else - that begins to add up. At that point, not only does Netflix provide something for everybody; it also becomes the only place to watch certain shows with cultural-touchstone status. And presto, the decision is no longer whether Netflix is worth the subscription price; rather, the question is whether you can afford not to have it.
There's no guarantee that Netflix is going to succeed at this strategy: many have sailed into the treacherous waters of Hollywood video production, and few have thrived there. And in the first instance the strategy just means that it's no longer just the content companies managing to extract enormous rents from Netflix; it's the production industry and the talent as well. The old argument still applies, mutatis mutandis, to the new strategy: as high-quality original content becomes increasingly important to Netflix, Hollywood will find ever more ingenious ways of forcing Netflix to pay through the nose for it.
Still, for viewers, this can only be good. The viewing audience doesn't care whether Netflix makes money: they just want great shows to be produced. If they like House of Cards and Arrested Development, they should be very heartened: there's going to be a lot more new shows where those ones came from.