To read The Wall Street Journal’s take Monday on a supposed shift among media companies regarding Netflix, assorted moguls suddenly had an abrupt change of heart about the upstart streaming service.
Sure, top execs at News Corp., CBS Corp. and Time Warner, seemed unusually generous toward Netflix when analysts asked them what they thought of the company in a series of earnings calls last week.
The most dramatic aboutface came from Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, who seemed to be in “Stepford Wives” mode both on his earnings call and in an interview the week before that when he showered Netflix with praise. This from the guy who previously diminished Netflix by comparing it to the Albanian army and a 200-pound chimp.
But now they are whispering nothing but sweet nothings into Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ ear. As the WSJ article explains, the moguls sudden graciousness is a reflection of the fact that Netflix represents such a robust source of incremental revenues as a buyer in the syndication market, that it makes no sense to alienate Hastings & Co.
While that’s certainly true as evidenced by the bevy of deals that have turned over tons of TV content to Netflix over the past year, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. It was just as true when Bewkes first made his ill-advised remarks, so why would this suddenly matter now?
Methinks last week’s outburst of goodwill seems more rooted in correcting Bewkes’ faux pas. By sizing up Netflix as a competitor, even dismissively, he likely created a false equivalency between the company and his own conglomerates. Putting Time Warner and Netflix in the same sentence sets up perception of a rivalry, which lends a legitimacy to Netflix as a capital-T threat to establishment media companies in the eyes of Wall Street.
What we saw last week seemed a deliberate shift in tone in its re-focusing on the revenue opportunity that Netflix represents. But make no mistake: Netflix is pure frenemy to Bewkes et al.
Because even as they collect extra dollars for library TV content they wouldn’t otherwise get, they are still risking giving rise to an entity with the potential to steal away customers from the cable and satellite distributors who pay programmers billions of dollars.
If a balance can be achieved between feeding Netflix just enough to TV content to appeal to those who would never pay for multichannel TV or just want to supplement those pricey subscriptions, great. But if too much content is provided, the programmers could end up killing the golden goose that is their affiliate fees.
In the meantime, look for everyone to be nice with the company Bewkes called a chimp or there’s going to be one gigantic monkey on their backs.