Is Netflix Getting Cozy With the Enemy?

In a very enlightening interview with Business Insider this week, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) CEO Reed Hastings showed a lot of public respect for cable providers and premium channels. According to Hastings, Netflix doesn't want to be Plan A for cord-cutters; it wants to be Plan B for those sticking with their existing cable and satellite television providers. However, there may be more to the CEO's comments than he's letting on.

Why can't we be friends?
Among the salient points that Hastings made to Henry Blodget and Dan Frommer, he claimed that "everyone, essentially" among Netflix's base subscribes to a TV service, dimissing the notion that folks are trading in their chunky cable deals for a Netflix streaming plan and a high-def antenna to grab local channels for free.

Hastings also pointed out that while the country's pay-television industry did suffer net defections through the first three quarters of 2010, it did bounce back during the fourth quarter. In this same three months, Netflix tacked on 3.1 million net subs.

Pay television doesn't have to fail for Netflix to succeed. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) and Cablevision (NYSE: CVC  ) may have posted sequential dips in video customers during last year's final quarter, but gains at DIRECTV (Nasdaq: DTV  ) and others more than offset the slide. That pattern suggests that any cord-cutting simply stemmed from recessionary cost-cutting.

In addition, Hastings asserted that 30% of his subscribers pay for Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) HBO, in line with the national average.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think that Business Insider were interviewing a cable giant apologist, defending old school media in the face of a dot-com onslaught. But Hastings hasn't gone mad here. If anything, he's a genius.

Come with me if you want to live
Hastings is talking up the competition because he still needs them alive and well. His stock may have tripled over the past year -- hitting a fresh all-time high this morning -- but Netflix still needs content. Right now, studios have more to lose if traditional pay television goes belly-up than they stand to gain by licensing their streams through Netflix.

In short, I think Hastings is playing possum, making non-threatening statements to soothe the fears of Big Media. According to Hastings, Netflix has no interest in the live sports, news, or reality shows that anchor couch potatoes to their cable or satellite providers.

When addressing the Liberty Starz (Nasdaq: LSTZA  ) deal headed for renewal early next year, Hastings didn't flinch. "We will clearly pay more," he said. "And there are more people streaming, so we can afford to pay more."

Hastings is even giving his dot-com competition some mad props and major leeway. He nixes talk of tiered streaming plans or pay-per-view deals. He doesn't want to take on iTunes and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) with their "pretty comprehensive" catalog of premium digital rentals. Even if Amazon is now invading Netflix's streaming smorgasbord space, Hastings has no interest in returning the favor by selling shows a la carte, as the leading online retailer does.

Why should Netflix stray from its bread and butter, when it's working so well? Revenue, earnings, and subscribers climbed 29%, 39%, and 63%, respectively last year -- accelerating during the final quarter.

Deleted scenes
By sticking to what it does best, Netflix may lull the media giants into thinking it's staying out of their way -- but it's actually sowing the seeds of their eventual downfall.

Hastings is publicly pitching Netflix as a convenient add-on to conventional pay television. When someone is paying $80 or more a month for cable or satellite television, what's an extra $7.99 for Netflix streaming -- or a couple of bucks more for DVD rentals as well?

Unfortunately, I think viewers will adopt a different attitude. Premium movie channels will take the first hit, as HBO's lackluster recent performance seems to bear out. Next, the day that cable companies have long fought tooth and nail will finally arrive: customizable pay-per-channel plans.

Since most viewers don't watch half of the glut of programming they currently pay for, who wouldn't jump at a chance to augment free local channels with a dozen or so cherry-picked cable favorites -- and a dramatically lower bill? Cable and satellite companies don't want to lose those dollars, given their costly infrastructure and expensive subsidized receivers, but soon they may have no choice. I think cable customers' cord-cutting last year represented the first signs of a customer uprising against TV providers' increasingly outdated model.

No wonder Reed Hastings doesn't mind paying cable and satellite a few compliments. As TV increasingly trips itself up, Netflix simply has to sit back, quietly provide consumers with a more desirable option, and wait for its giant rivals to implode.

What nuggets did you take away from Hastings' interview? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

Amazon.com and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a Netflix shareholder -- and subscriber -- since 2002. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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