Starz CEO Retiring: Trouble Ahead for Netflix Streaming?

Includes: LMDIA, NFLX
by: Eric Savitz

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to reinstate by Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) subscription, in part based on the prospects of happily streaming movies and TV shows. (I’ve finally decided I need to catch up with the rest of you and watch Lost; I’m about midway through Season Two.) The ability to do unlimited streaming is an extremely attractive part of the Netflix subscription plan; for me was the primary reason to sign up.

One of the most attractive parts of the Netflix collection of content that can be streamed on demand comes from its deal with Starz, which is a unit of Liberty Media (LMDIA). Last October, Netflix and Starz cut a deal which allows Netflix to stream movies from the cable channel. That gives Netflix the ability to offer movies from Disney (NYSE:DIS), Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Lions Gate (LGF); before the deal was signed most of the content on the Netflix streaming service consisted of older films.

OK, so Wednesday, Starz announced that chairman and CEO Robert Clasen is going to retire at year-end; Liberty has begun a search for a replacement. And here’s where Netflix comes in.

Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible Thursday noted that his channel checks find that studios and the cable operators “have loathed” the Starz/Netflix deal, “as it threatens DVD sales and cable Pay TV subscription revenue. Wible thinks that management change at Starz “could signal greater changes in terms for NFLX as the new management will likely face the same studio and [cable system] pressures.” At worse, he writes, Starz content could become unavailable on NFLX; he thinks a more likely scenario is a new pricing model that would pressure margins at Netflix.

Meanwhile, the company is facing new potential margin pressure from Time-Warner’s Warner Bros. unit, which recently said that it wants revised terms from DVD by mail services if they want the right to rent movies at the same time they are released in disk.

Hard to know if a change in management at Starz ally rewill threaten the company’s Netflix deal, which originally was for a three-year term. But there is no question that the studios in general seem to be taking a tougher stance on cheap DVD rentals in the face of crumbling DVD sales.

NFLX Thursday is up 34 cents, or 0.8%, to $45.21.

One of the best thing on Starz, by the way, are their series of 30-second versions of hit movies as performed by animated bunnies. If you haven’t watched them, you should. Here’s Casablanca.

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