Amazon video biz in for rougher ride

Viacom deal no buffer from nimble rivals

A new deal with Viacom may be indication that Amazon runs deep, but a rising tide roiling the streaming video space is creeping up on the online retail giant.

Amazon Prime Instant Video is now stocked with 15,000 movies and TV shows thanks to a slew of cable series programming in the pact from Viacom-owned nets including Nickelodeon, VH1, MTV and Comedy Central.

If building a vast library of catalog content was all it took to stay competitive with SVOD services Netflix and Hulu, Amazon is in to win it. But its rivals not only have bigger caches of content, they have expanded into areas differentiating their services, including original programming and exclusive licensing deals.

In addition, Verizon and Redbox declared their own intent to enter the SVOD space as partners earlier this week, putting another entrant into the market with pockets deep enough to rival Amazon’s.

Nevertheless, Amazon has to be considered a serious threat to all streaming providers, particularly given speculation recently echoed by Netflix founder Reed Hastings on his company’s quarterly earnings call last week that Amazon may yet still launch a cheaper extension to Prime that doesn’t require Amazon membership.

But Brad Beale, head of digital video content acquisition, could confirm no such plans.

“I honestly don’t know where Reed gets that information,” Beale said. “I don’t have any comment on the speculation from Reed or the press on us offering a standalone subscription service.”

As for the competitive pressure, Beale said that stacking up Prime with Hulu Plus or Netflix is a false comparison given how the service isn’t broken out separately from the broader Prime offering enjoyed by a subset of customers who pay $79 per year for free unlimited two-day shipping of Amazon products.

“What other guys are doing is not as important to us as what our customers tell us is important to them,” said Beale.

Amazon Instant Video Prime launched nearly a year ago as a value-add to Prime, tripling its content offerings over that time via a growing range of studios and networks including BBC, PBS, National Geographic, Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films.

Amazon Prime is estimated to reach 5 million — a far cry from Netflix’s 24 million subs but well ahead of the 1.5 million using Hulu Plus. That said, it’s an inexact comparison given there’s no sense of just how many of Amazon’s 5 million are even sampling the video product.

In addition to that SVOD service, Amazon continues to maintain an iVOD storefront for a la carte rental and purchase of titles. Both services are intended to drive sales of the Kindle Fire, the low-cost tablet that has made media consumption central to the product offering. While far behind the category-leading Apple iPad, the 6 million units analysts estimate Kindle Fire racked up in the fourth quarter of 2011 is well ahead of the likes of Samsung and Motorola.

Neither Netflix nor Hulu Plus is anchored to any one device. Both services are beginning to roll out the first of their original scripted series effort in hopes of standing out in a category awash in commoditized content. On Monday, Netflix launched Norwegian import “Lilyhammer” while the first to come from Hulu, “Battleground,” will start next week.

In addition, both companies have tried to play keepaway from competitors via select content, with Netflix landing exclusive rights to AMC favorites including “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead” while Hulu has some exclusive ties to series including NBC’s “Community” and Fox’s “Hell Kitchen.”

Whether the additional expense that comes with securing exclusivity or original fare is justified in the SVOD business isn’t yet known. Amazon may very well be betting that it isn’t, though Beale wouldn’t say whether the company could eventually reach in those directions. “We look at all different types of opportunities but there’s lots of ways to deliver great stuff for our customers,” he said.

There’s no question the Viacom deal is great news for congloms, who continue to pad their bottom lines with a slew of licensing pacts that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Viacom CEO Phillippe Dauman tipped his hat last week in the company’s earnings call that it was on the verge of another streaming deal, which didn’t make the Amazon announcement a surprise.

UBS Investment Research estimated the non-exclusive deal would drive about $45 million to $50 million to Viacom coffers, which is actually on the low end of the range of price tags attached to these pacts. The firm also projected that Time Warner, Discovery and Scripps could be next to sign deals with Amazon.

The valuation may reflect that unscripted programming tends to have lower aftermarket worth than scripted fare, which comprised more of previous Amazon pacts with CBS Corp. and News Corp. that were estimated by analysts in the $100 million-$150 million range.

Studio sources have indicated that Amazon maintains its relationships with sellers as actively as any of its competitors, but doesn’t operate with the same urgency. That may be a reflection of a strategic approach that keeps both eyes on the long game. That’s consistent with a company that has been knocked by investors for not delivering enough revenues quarter to quarter but also credited for maintaining a focus on the future.

Or Amazon is being too slow or conservative at a time when the marketplace could be calling for some aggressiveness as Netflix wobbles back on its feet after the roughest months of its existence and Hulu has yet to truly find its groove. And not only could Redbox and Verizon be on the way, but speculation never ceases that companies like Walmart’s Vudu and Google’s YouTube that have found traction providing video content in other business models may try their hand at SVOD as well.

No assessment of the subscription streaming category is seemingly complete without automatic awarding of spoiler status to Amazon, a reflexive nod perhaps to its size and reputation for innovation.

But as the Viacom deal triggers a fresh round of huzzahs, perhaps it’s time to rethink just how potent its potential is.