Netflix: Another Day, Another Business Model

| About: Netflix, Inc. (NFLX)
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For as solid of a handle as I have had on the company since last year, I'm not quite sure what to make of Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) at this point. It's tough to find a negative with its enhanced inclusion on the refreshed AppleTV. Consumers can now sign up for a Netflix account through Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes interface. Easily a net positive no matter how that deal got structured.

But, as the great Peter Kafka at All Things D points out, this, coupled with another recent yelp by Reed Hastings, could signal yet another new business model for Netflix:

Reuters reported yesterday that Hastings was looking to bundle his service with pay-TV operators, and to deliver movies and TV shows through cable providers' set-top boxes. But people familiar with his thinking tell me the Apple TV model is a more plausible tie-up: Netflix would be happy to let cable operators take care of billing, but wants to send its video over the Web, just like it always has.

That assumes that the cable guys buy the argument Hastings has been making for some time - that his service isn't for cord-cutters, but for people who like watching lots of video, and don't mind paying another $8 for what is essentially another cable channel.

As with anything, your reaction likely comes down to your perspective and, to a certain extent, view of the world as it spins in new media. If you're a bull, and the company can pull this off, you're happy to see billing handed off to third parties and Netflix extend its presence to even more platforms. Completely sensible. But, as has been the case with the previous 3,000 iterations of Netflix, it simply might not be workable.

And this is where I have to pat myself on the back for knowing the landscape better than Netflix does. Let us build on something I wrote the other day:

... Hastings said the day will come (and using the Netflix concept of time that could be next week*) when he would consider pitching his service as part of a bundled cable television package.

Interesting ... particularly when you consider that "cord-cutting" was all the rage, apparently, in 2011. Hastings' reasoning:

... it's getting tougher to convince cable TV to share rights to their shows - "they're just being good capitalists." - so Netflix has been striking more exclusive deals with content creators and paying cable-TV prices to do so.

There's no reason for a member of the old guard - a cable company or content provider - to buy Netflix. In spirit, they already own them. Companies ranging from Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) to Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) dictate the direction of Netflix's business because they, in concert, control both the means of delivery and the content ...

And that's been the deal all along ... ever since I started yelping about this whole thing roughly one year ago. Netflix never had and never will have any power in this relationship. When Hastings knocks on the old guard's door, its members will ultimately make the decision as to whether Netflix should live or die.

*Back pat #2

Comcast already shot down Netflix's "idea." Why in the world would a true competitor do otherwise? At this point, Netflix offers absolutely nothing that the cable companies and content providers would not be better off, very easily, providing on their own. That includes the ability to relive Beantown sitcom memories featuring Coach, Sam and Diane.

The only way Netflix can make this work is to become another HBO. At present, there's little, if any, value in reproducing the same content people can get on cable and now, thanks to the old guard getting progressive, via practically any device of their choosing. Disney (NYSE:DIS) offering its programming, including ESPN, in a deal with Comcast. That's a big deal. Bundling Netflix with cable, in its present form, not so much.

HBO took decades to build. In fact, I realized last night, in an direct way, how far the premium channel has come and how long it took. I started reading a book about ESPN, which also took years to build (both the book and ESPN!), and on Page 5 I saw this:

HBO had gone on the air in 1975 but offered limited programming and signed off at midnight.

Not a major revelation, but a reminder that it's arrogant and insane - even borderline insulting to franchises like ESPN and HBO - for Hastings to even hint that he can turn Netflix into a worthy side-by-side peer in no time. And if he cannot do that, Netflix offers very little to make the old guard want to throw it a bone.

Disclosure: I am long AAPL, TWX.

Additional disclosure: I am long NFLX June $40 put options.