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Why Netflix Won’t Convert to Cable (Just Ask HBO)

A Reuters report Tuesday suggesting Netflix is already in negotiations with cable operators about becoming a part of the cable bundle goosed the company’s stock Wednesday. But maybe investors should consider a caveat issued Wednesday morning Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible that might temper the excitement.

As Wible sees it, there’s a good reason Netflix can’t make the transition: It has the potential to unleash a Pandora’s box that would unravel the cable business model that keeps other pay-TV nets like HBO in check:

 “If MVPDs started to see NFLX as a Pay TV alternative and allow NFLX to continue to sell its service directly to end subs, than it may trigger a response from existing Pay TV platform that could demand to do the same thing. Essentially, Pay TV networks like HBO could rationalize a dual structure platform whereby they sell directly and through the MVPD ecosystem. This would essentially ratchet up the pressure on NFLX in its core acquisition channel.”

Wible’s point is well taken: HBO has amply proven through its brilliant deployment of HBO Go that it has the ability to go directly to the consumer over digital platforms without having to splits its profits with cable operators. The only reason HBO hasn’t broken away is that the Comcasts of the world are paying billions to keep the channel in its exclusive domain–a lot more money than HBO could hope to make on its own anytime soon.

But if HBO wants an excuse to test those water–a long-term inevitability–all it would need to do is cry foul if Netflix were allowed to be both fish and fowl: a freestanding SVOD service and a bundled channel. HBO–nor Showtime or Starz, for that matter–would stand idly by while Netflix got its cake and ate it, too.

As Wible warns, Netflix could see its own lunch eaten in that scenario, too. Just imagine what the company’s already cluttered competitive landscape would be like if HBO Go were loosed on the world as a standalone product? Suddenly Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime and Verizon/Redbox wouldn’t seem all that scary.

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