Shares of Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) hit an all-time high in intraday trading today, once again reaffirming the company's seeming immortality.
The video rental service keeps kicking, despite a host of slings and arrows :
- Studios are reassessing the value of making their content available online through Netflix, in light of weak syndication interest for shows freely available in cyberspace.
- Revenue per subscriber continues to shrink, and while investors initially cheered last month's price hike, it may also increase subscriber churn. At the very least, it will escalate the number of Netflix couch potatoes downgrading to cheaper plans with fewer DVDs.
- Its streaming business seemed threatened when content-delivery partner Level 3 (Nasdaq: LVLT ) got bullied by the country's largest cable broadband provider.
- CFO Barry McCarthy stepped down in December, hoping to eventually catch on as a CEO elsewhere. He left on good terms, suggesting that he has no plans to compete against his good friend Reed Hastings. However, McCarthy joined the board of Pandora last week.
These may seem like petty obstacles for Netflix, but let's dive a little deeper.
Time to slay some demons
Studios will want more when they renegotiate their deals with Netflix. The first major renewal will surely be costly for Netflix, as it attempts to re-up its deal with Liberty Starz (Nasdaq: LSTZA ) . However, no rival service even comes close to Netflix and its 20 million subscribers.
Netflix argues that there is no single content deal that it absolutely needs, since no streaming service will ever be all-inclusive. If Starz walks away, it's hard to fathom that the cable giant will make Netflix-sized dollars elsewhere. Let's not assume that the content owners can call the shots here. Revisit the music industry if you want to see how the primary digital distributor ends up with the majority of the clout.
As for customers trading down to cheaper plans with fewer discs, Netflix wouldn't mind that one bit. Streaming is cheap, especially pitted against the fulfillment costs involved in shipping, packaging, and managing physical inventory.
The battle between Level 3 and Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA ) may have been a thorny tech matter regarding peering agreement practices, but the public took it as an affront to the larger net neutrality issue. In a nutshell, if you think a broadband provider can shut down Netflix streams and still win in the court of public opinion, you're wrong.
Finally, we have McCarthy joining Peter Chernin at Pandora last week. Let's not dismiss this threat entirely.
Pandora's audience doubled to 75 million last year. Like Netflix, it's a cloud-based entertainment service. However, Pandora is music, while Netflix is film. Pandora is free to most users. Netflix is not. However, it's not entirely unfathomable that Pandora could evolve in a few years to stream more than just music through its custom-tailored recommendations engine. It has the user base to shoehorn its way into more types of media.
Paying the Piper
Balanced against all those looming obstacles, today's splash of Netflix optimism stems from an encouraging Piper Jaffray report.
Analyst Mike Olson is encouraged by a report out of Internet traffic tracker Comscore. Visits to Netflix.com in this quarter to date have spiked 34% year over year, leading Olson to believe that the company will fare well in piling on gross subscriber additions.
The same traffic report shows a possible 30% decline at Blockbuster.com this quarter, and a 27% spike at Coinstar's (Nasdaq: CSTR ) Redbox.com.
Investors may disregard the slide at Blockbuster, now that the fading retailer is in bankruptcy, but NCR (NYSE: NCR ) shareholders should be taking notes. NCR is bankrolling the Blockbuster Express kiosks, which stand plenty to lose if the Blockbuster brand continues to disappear.
On the other side of the news, I'm approaching the traffic upticks at Netflix and Redbox cautiously.
What if the uptick in Netflix's traffic -- beyond streaming, naturally -- is related to active subscribers switching to streaming to avoid higher bills? What if the boost in Redbox.com traffic owes more to confusion over availability than to the logical absorption of Blockbuster refugees? After all, Coinstar's blaming delayed release windows for recently hosing down its near-term outlook. I'd be checking Redbox.com, too, to see whether a new DVD is actually out on Redbox.
We'll find out for sure in a few months. Olson scores points for going out on a limb early, but this industry is evolving rapidly.
Netflix will live to have the last laugh -- but it should be a nervous laugh at that.
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