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On Friday, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) managed to close above $60 for the first time this month.
It didn't last.
Variety raised doubts this morning that Netflix's streaming deal with A&E and History Channel won't be renewed before the original contract ends this Friday. Adding insult to injury, Macquarie analyst Tim Nollen initiated coverage of the company today with an underperform rating and a $50 price target.
Nollen's argument is that investors are better off going with the content owners than with the distributors. "Content is king" may be a tired mantra, but Nollen thinks it will be media giants including Time Warner (NYSE: TWX ) and CBS (NYSE: CBS ) that "rule the roost" here.
"Netflix is a price taker in an increasingly competitive market," he argues.
Throne for a loop
Time Warner is the parent of HBO. CBS owns Showtime. One can argue that they started out a lot like Netflix. Cable providers continue to market HBO and Showtime as premium movie channels -- which is pretty much what Netflix was during its disc-intensive model.
However, HBO and Showtime began to learn that owning content -- especially recurring content in the form of television shows that can push the envelope the way traditional broadcasters can't -- is the smarter path to retention.
The third season of Boardwalk Empire premiered on HBO last night. If you wanted to catch Weeds before its finale, you needed Showtime.
Does anyone care if HBO or Showtime misses out on a particular movie? No. Do they care that obscure A&E and History Channel shows have never been available? Of course not. However, Netflix's stock still takes a whack whenever a cable channel or studio deal falls apart, even if it will ultimately improve margins if subscribers stick around.
Spoiler alert for cynics: Netflix subscribers stick around.
Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LMCA ) cut off a lucrative deal with Netflix in February, and Netflix shares have taken a beating since Starz let its intention known last year. Did subscribers follow the stock price out the door? No. Netflix has actually tacked on nearly 2.3 million net streaming subscribers in this country through the first half of the year.
There are now nearly 24 million domestic Netflix streaming subscribers. Netflix's more than 27.5 million global streaming subscribers represent a figure comparable to the leading premium movie channels. Why are folks willing to pay twice as much for HBO or Showtime than Netflix? Why are they willing to pay far more for the cable and satellite television services required before they can add Showtime or HBO?
If "quality original content" is your answer, have you seen the Netflix playbook? Netflix's foray into original programming got off to a slow start with February's Lilyhammer, but we have the Arrested Development revival, the star-studded House of Cards, and Eli Roth's Hemlock Grove on tap for next year.
Maybe Netflix is taking the wrong path by making entire seasons of its shows available at once, the way it did with Lilyhammer. It wants to encourage what it calls "binge viewing" instead of creating the buzz that builds for hot shows with weekly installments.
In the end, it doesn't matter. Netflix has proved that it's flexible enough to shift gears when something isn't working. Just look at Qwikster, which lasted about as long as a Kardashian relationship.
If skeptics think that investors will bail on Netflix just because they can't watch old episodes of Hoarders, they're wrong. Just wait until Netflix has just one original-programming hit and learns to milk it appropriately.
When you have more than 27.5 million premium streaming customers worldwide, you're going to find that you can not only pay more to score magnetic content, but you can also pay more to acquire quality content. Amazon.com is giving Netflix a good fight as it follows the Netflix blueprint circa 2009, but Netflix is already catching up to the audibles that HBO and Showtime are calling.
Good luck betting against Netflix.