TWC, Netflix Face-Off Over Streaming Issues

The evolving nature of bedfellows and bed-foes in the entertainment ecosystem is moving at a pace faster than Xfinity Mbps. The marriages and break-ups are hard to keep up with.

Time Warner Cable and Disney battle publicly over rights fees, then reach an agreement both say is tremendous for consumers. Disney reaches a breakthrough deal with Netflix, which allows the streaming of episodes 15 days after they air. Netflix thinks it brings value to cable operators, but a large cable entity is questioning Netflix's long-term viability.

That doesn't even cover Hulu effectively wrestling with itself. Disney and the other Web site owners are at odds with the executives who work for it, tangling over how much of their content should be free on Hulu, per The Wall Street Journal. There's also the potential for Hulu to become an online competitor to TWC -- and other operators -- by streaming live TV.

Of course, a seminal moment in the dynamics of online video distribution came in 2008 when TWC CEO Glenn Britt said his company was frustrated that cable networks were giving free access to the same content online that TWC pays those networks to offer. Several months later, Disney may have heeded him, placing its popular "PTI" and "Around the Horn" shows on ESPN behind a pay wall.

As of Thursday, a Netflix-TWC contretemps can lengthen the bed-foes list. Speaking with analysts, Britt praised Netflix's easy-to-search capability for its content. He also suggested it may become marginalized.

"They have a wonderful interface, which anybody can hire a bunch of Web designers and do that," Britt said. "What's the value-add of what they're doing."

If Netflix thrives with its new online-streaming core -- or Hulu with a new iteration -- the main threat to TWC would be cord-cutting and service downgrading for TV service. At the same time, TWC can benefit since a broadband service is needed. Over time, as online video becomes even more popular, TWC is likely to increase broadband charges.

Britt said "it uses our infrastructure, so it's not a horrible thing for us at the end of the day."

Netflix believes the better it does, the more it helps a broadband provider. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, however, acknowledged tension that might exist within a TWC. "We've got a natural partnership with the broadband services group, which is highly profitable and wants to increase their reach and the speed at which their consumers buy packages," Hastings told investors this week. "With the broadband side, there's a complete natural partnership.

"With the video side, we're a channel, we're sort of tolerated. We're not a big threat," he added, "but it's hard to see why it makes sense for them to help us grow."

One of the backdrops to this discussion is whether Netflix could go the way of MySpace. The social-networking site seems to have bled millions of users overnight. Netflix now has 20 million members and seems indomitable. It's easy to use and highly affordable. As a business, it apparently has enough cash that this week it made noise it could challenge HBO for rights to Warner Bros. films.

It may need to land exclusive content to keep booming, thoughNetflix believes it has enough content to offer if a supplier bails Yet MySpace has shown how quickly a huge base of members can abandon ship for a better boat, such as Facebook. Could Hulu, with its wealthy owners that own a waterfall of content, challenge it? What about a TWC?

Netflix executives don't appear to be worried. Wall Street maybe even less so. Its share price was up about 15% in midday trading Thursday and at one point hit a 52-week high. TWC wasn't far from its 52-week top.

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