Will AT&T Kill Netflix? No? How About DISH Network, Then?

DISH Network (NASDAQ: DISH  ) and AT&T (NYSE: T  ) are whipping up a couple of brand-new online TV services. American consumers are on the way to getting full-fledged broadcast and cable TV goodness delivered over the Internet. Should Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) investors worry about this new trend?

Let's look at what the new services might actually deliver to consumers -- and how they would measure up against Netflix.


Netflix's house is under attack. How effective will the new rivals be? Source: Netflix.

The dark horse
The AT&T venture starts off with a $500 million investment and a partnership with media development veteran Peter Chernin's Chernin Group. This one looks like a pure video-on-demand service, putting films and TV show episodes on an a la carte menu for easy consumption. The content won't be tied to time schedules, and the experience should be similar to having a massive DVR at your service -- without the hassle of actually recording the stuff you want to see later.

It's not clear exactly what that content will be, and the companies haven't explained how subscribers will pay for their entertainment. This could be an ad-free subscription service like Netflix, a wholly or partially ad-supported subscription like Hulu (which Chernin played an important role in starting, years ago), or just another pay-per-view service that mimics your cable box's on-demand experience in a more portable format.

Until we know these details, it's hard to say how this service will affect Netflix. But it's safe to say that anything with baked-in advertising will fall short of the clean Netflix experience, and thus cater to a very different demographic. As for pay-per-view, that market is also very separate and massively saturated.

Wake me up if AT&T and Chernin start talking about an ad-free subscription model.

The unique snowflake
The DISH Network service looks like a completely different animal. According to Bloomberg and its anonymous insider sources, DISH is looking to deliver a live TV stream over the Internet. We're talking about the classic TV networks and cable channels streaming their content onto an online platform, which isn't tied to a cable or satellite box in your living room, but can be enjoyed on broadband-connected computers, tablets, and smartphones anywhere.

DISH has already signed an agreement with Walt Disney, adding Disney staples ABC, the Disney Channel, and ESPN to the mix. The company is talking to all the major broadcast networks, and could put together an impressive package before a launch slated for late summer.

Unlike Netflix and the proposed AT&T offering, DISH seems to shoot for a traditional TV schedule rather than allowing you to pick your shows on demand. This would be like carrying a cable box in your pocket, feeding live TV content into your tablet or phone.

This will have to be a subscription-based service, and should come with all the advertising you'd expect from a regular cable TV service. DISH will be able to deliver content that no other online service can match, including high-budget maven Netflix, or fresh-content hawker Hulu. There's nothing quite like live TV if you're looking for news and sports, after all. And even Hulu's next-day delivery can't stand up to watching the latest sitcoms and dramas absolutely live.

The dime-sized antennas may or may not help Aereo avoid paying license fees to broadcasters. Aren't they cute? Source: Aereo.

If anything, this is a spiritual sibling to online TV service Aereo, which is currently fighting for its life in the Supreme Court.

The difference is, Aereo rebroadcasts TV content sucked down from live on-air broadcasts, using one set of the tiniest rabbit-ear antennas you've ever seen for each subscriber. Aereo says that it's no different from providing a really long and flexible coaxial cable from the antenna to each subscriber, and that it shouldn't have to pay broadcasters for accessing the free, over-the-air content.

As you've seen, DISH is actively talking up content deals with each broadcaster, and hopes to deliver an Aereo-style service without all the legal headaches. Plus, DISH is adding in cable TV channels that Aereo can't even pretend to have the rights to retransmit.

This one's very interesting to cord-cutters with bad over-the-air reception. But even though it's a pure Internet-delivered subscription, DISH will deliver a very different content library than Netflix. It's apples and oranges -- live TV can do things Netflix wouldn't dream of, but the DISH service can't match the Netflix ultra-convenient experience, either.

As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said many times in Monday's earnings call, this is not a zero-sum game. It's easy to see how pairing Netflix (or one of its very few direct competitors) with something like Aereo, or this DISH-backed service, will make for a richer entertainment experience. There will be plenty of overlap between Netflix and DISH Online -- or whatever it'll be called -- subscribers.

What do these newfangled services mean?
As a shareholder, I'm not nervous about either one of these online TV services cutting into Netflix's revenue stream. In fact, adding more options to a currently thin field of Internet-based entertainment options can only legitimize the cord-cutting phenomenon even further. As a regular consumer, I'm pretty excited to see these services coming out of the woodwork.

Neither AT&T nor DISH is likely to make me cancel my Netflix subscription, but at least one of them (and maybe both... we just don't know yet) will bring something new to the table at a reasonable cost.

Building your own TV package out of several specialized online services is getting easier than ever before. As I've said before, this industry is just getting out of diapers and putting training wheels on its bedazzled bike. These are the early days, with plenty of room for several business models to flourish as digital entertainment grows up.

DISH may become a leader in its particular niche, and AT&T could sit beside it if Ma Bell plays her cards the right way. But neither one poses any threat to Netflix and its global-growth plans at this point. That may change as each service builds out its business model, but the early rumblings don't sound dangerous at all.

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