Disney deal could mark shift for SVOD services

Netflix could be turning Scrooge in Hollywood, risking a revenue stream that became a Christmas bonus to media companies in 2012.

A pact with Disney earlier this month that will deliver its first-ever supply of blockbuster theatricals from a major studio in the pay-TV window represents a strategic reversal for the streaming service, according to Barclays analyst Anthony DiClemente in a research note Thursday. He believes Netflix has changed its focus from offering the most comprehensive catalog of content to locking up select titles exclusively that rivals like Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus lack.

“We believe Netflix now sees greater value in carrying a smaller-sized portfolio of exclusive original TV shows and exclusive TV/film content as opposed to a large pool of non-exclusive library titles,” wrote DiClemente.

But that shift could give the shaft to studios who have loaded up on high-volume deals to the tune of the $3 billion Barclays estimates for the year in total subscription VOD revenues. That new infusion has been like manna for media companies as the DVD business that bolstered its bottom line for so long dried up.

Most deals to date between subscription VOD services and conglomerates have been non-exclusive deep dives into libraries of films and TV shows going back decades, particularly with CBS Corp. and News Corp. Not all congloms are as exposed, with Time Warner and Discovery Networks among those that have taken a more conservative tack with Netflix et al.

Still, if DiClemente is correct, Netflix is taking a different approach to its deals going forward beginning with its pact with Disney, which will steer exclusive top-tier titles from Pixar and Marvel beginning in 2016.

Netflix hasn’t publicly acknowledged any such aboutface, but the theory also might explain the service’s decision, as Variety first reported, to part ways with hundreds of TV titles from A&E Networks in the fall. Shedding content that may not be among its most popular, even at the risk of diluting the depth of its catalog, could free up dollars for spending on exclusive deals.

As DiClemente sees it, there are several reasons Netflix going Grinch actually won’t pinch a revenue stream that has been a windfall for Hollywood. First, he believes less is more given even if Netflix has gotten pickier, “that content is far more costly and will likely more than offset any savings from reduced spend on deep catalogue content.”

Second, he argues the studios will find a way to bundle titles in the deals so that Netflix can’t simply cherrypick what it wants. CBS Corp. has certainly demonstrated that ability in its own Netflix deals, such as the put option attached to their existing pact that sent an entire run of “CSI Miami” to the streaming service.

Third, any shortfall that might materialize on Netflix’s tab in the coming years will be compensated for by increased spending by its competitors, a list that may be growing as the Redbox-Verizon SVOD joint venture enters the marketplace. What’s more, DiClemente doesn’t see the strategic shift Netflix is making being adopted by its competitors.

“For Amazon and Hulu, we have not seen any evidence that they are following Netflix’s move towards newer, exclusive content rights, which suggests that their demand for catalogue content–especially top quality programming–will remain somewhat stable going forward,” he wrote.

But here’s where a question mark hovers over the SVOD market. There’s no doubt that Amazon and Hulu spent most of 2012 stocking its shelves in a manner suggesting its goal was to match what Netflix had. But whether that will be their strategic direction in the future doesn’t seem as cut and dried.

Amazon in particular in recent months seems to have deviated away from its strict diet of commoditized product. Earlier this week, the company made its first long-term exclusive deal by sewing up rights to TNT series “Falling Skies” and “The Closer. That deal came months after Amazon secured a temporary lock on “The West Wing” and “Fringe.”

Hulu Plus has also done its share of exclusive deals over 2012, particularly with TV titles from the U.K. Just what the future holds for this service is anybody’s guess given Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report that joint owners News Corp. and Disney are in disagreement as what Hulu’s future direction should be. That opens the possibility that Hulu Plus, too, could lean more on exclusives in the future.

We could see an SVOD category that looks very different in 2013 than it has in the past. But if DiClemente is right, the studios will protect their digital dollars regardless.

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