Netflix chairman and CEO Reed Hastings said he’s not “worried” about the imminent launch of Disney Plus — but he did indicate that he sees the Mouse House as the most robust new rival in the streaming wars.
“Disney is an amazing company… we admire them,” said Hastings, speaking at the New York Times’ DealBook conference Wednesday in Manhattan. “They’re a wonderful competitor, because they really understand creativity.”
Out of the new competitive field, Hastings said, “Disney’s the one that we really have the most to learn from in terms of entertainment,” adding that he plans to subscribe to Disney Plus.
In the bigger picture, Hastings reiterated his position that Netflix has been facing streaming competition for over a decade, citing YouTube, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. “We’ve already got a lot of competition,” he said. Now, “Everyone’s realized, ‘Wow, this internet thing really works… and so now all the major media companies are investing in their own services,” Hastings said.
Besides Disney Plus — set to launch next week (Nov. 12) — Apple TV Plus bowed Nov. 1, while WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock are slated to hit in 2020. Netflix previously acknowledged that the subscription VOD entrants may produce “some modest headwind to our near-term growth.”
Hastings, speaking Wednesday, predicted that consumers will subscribe to several services, with the metric that separates winners from losers being time spent with each one, rather than number of subscribers: “The real measurement will be time – how do consumers vote with their evenings.”
Hastings was interviewed by the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin, who asked the CEO if there’s a streaming “bubble.” Hastings said he didn’t think so. “Probably the definition of a bubble is [if] it could down again, and I don’t think subscribers or cumulative media spending is going to go down,” he said. The real loser from the streaming wars, Hastings said, is linear TV — which is “a huge revenue source and time source that’s declining.”
Meanwhile, Hastings reiterated that Netflix will continue to stick to its zero-advertising strategy. “It’s a funny thing,” he commented. “Disney is on the board of Hulu. Disney then bought Hulu. But when they go to launch with Disney Plus – no ads… We’re very comfortable doing no ads, like Disney Plus, and we’re going to compete on that basis.”
Facing deep-pocketed rivals, Netflix plans on “taking spend up quite a bit,” Hastings said. Netflix continues to spend heavily on content, with a projected $15 billion in content costs for 2019 on a gross-cash basis. Last month, Netflix raised another $2.2 billion in debt financing, bringing its long-term debt load to over $14 billion.
Hastings said Netflix still isn’t “doing the very biggest movies, the $500 million kind of movies.” Asked if a project like that is in the offing, he said, “I think we’ll continue to push the edge in entertainment.”
On the theatrical distribution front, Hastings was asked whether Netflix should buy theaters given the impasse it has had with exhibitors in getting Netflix original films distributed. “We’re not in the business of theaters,” he responded. “We’re the in the business of pleasing out members on a global basis.”
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is the source of most recent friction between theaters and the streamer. The film, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, currently is in a very limited 26-day theatrical run before it hits Netflix on Nov. 27. Netflix reportedly was willing to grant theater chains a 45-day exclusive window but exhibitors held fast to a traditional 72-day window.
“Personally we love theaters… it’s a different experience,” Hastings said. Whether Netflix original movies will eventually get wide distribution by the cinema chains, he said, “depends on the theaters. We’re clear… We’re in the business of pleasing our members.”
Hastings also addressed Netflix’s recent launch of a test that would let subscribers watch content at variable speeds, including at 1.5 times the original speed. Some in Hollywood complained loudly, including Aaron Paul, who reprises his “Breaking Bad” character in the Netflix exclusive film “El Camino.” Paul wrote on Twitter, “There is NO WAY Netflix will move forward with this. That would mean they are completely taking control of everyone else’s art and destroying it. Netflix is far better than that. Am I right Netflix?”
Asked about Paul’s comment, Hastings responded, “Aaron is right in that our job is to have both creators and consumers feel excited about Netflix.” But Netflix has to “balance both of those constituencies,” Hastings added, noting that DVD players have long had a similar feature to speed through content. “We’re always doing experiments to see, do consumers even care about that,” he added, noting that, for example, Netflix members like the ability to skip title sequences of series.
Hastings also was asked about Netflix’s decision to remove an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” in Saudi Arabia after the government threatened the company over a segment in which the comedian criticized Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) and the regime’s role in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“We’re not in the news business,” Hastings said. “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain… We don’t feel bad about [pulling the ‘Patriot Act’ episode in Saudi Arabia] at all.”
That said, if the Saudi government came to Netflix “and said, ‘you can’t do gay content,’ we wouldn’t do that, we would not comply with that,” the CEO said. He noted that the Saudi regime allows Netflix to stream shows like “Sex Education,” which portrays “a very liberal lifestyle and very provocative and important topics.”
For the third quarter of 2019, Netflix slightly undershot U.S. subscriber growth targets after a far more significant miss the prior quarter. The company posted Q3 revenue up 31% year-over-year and touted a 16.5% increase in average revenue per customer (ARPU) for its domestic streaming base, thanks to a price hike that rolled out earlier this year.