Suddenly, the Netflix narrative is turning into something very different than what Netflix and the TV world in general have long taken for granted.
No longer is it a story of unbridled growth with no end in sight to the upheaval the Netflix model would wreak on the television industry.
Now, with Netflix revealing that its U.S. subscriber growth has stalled, the stories and commentaries that are beginning to prevail in the business and trade press depict a company heading into a new, slower-growth era in its evolution with heavy traffic ahead.
They are portraying Netflix as a player in the TV arena that soon will no longer seem special or unique, but will settle into the TV landscape as just one of a number of high-profile content streamers.
The competitors are Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal, which are all in the process of marshaling their formidable content properties to launch subscription streaming services in the coming months.
In this context, much is being made of WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal taking back “Friends” and “The Office,” respectively, from Netflix in order to offer them on their own services.Since the two shows are said to be the two most popular attractions on Netflix, these take-backs underscore the advantage held by these older companies that have decades worth of attractive properties to offer on their own services. All of the critically acclaimed Netflix originals in the world cannot hold a candle to them -- not even Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee,” starting a new season on Friday (and pictured above).
Netflix's partial reliance on off-network properties to which they have no long-term claim renders Netflix, at least in part, no better than any other TV platform that depends on the off-network after-market for some of its content needs, like local station groups or basic cable networks.
Then came the stories about Netflix's decline in subscribers in the second quarter of this year. “Netflix U.S. Users Decline, Sinking Its Stock,” read the headline in the upper right, “lead” position on Page One of The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. “Video service reports 130,000 fewer domestic subscribers in second quarter,” read the subhead.
The story then reported that Netflix shares “slid” more than 11% on Wednesday. The story described Netflix as being in the midst of a “slowdown,” with the emergence of its various rivals setting off a round of competition that "Wall Street analysts [and the news media] are calling ‘the streaming wars'."
Just days earlier, in last Saturday's WSJ, columnist Holman Jenkins articulated what various consumer research has already begun to reveal: Basically, there is too much TV, period. "Billions will be spent [by the rival streaming services] producing more TV than Americans can watch or will be willing to pay for," he wrote.
He then offered a description of the competitive streaming-service future that felt awfully familiar. “The big players are clawing back content from each other,” he wrote, "including Netflix’s two most-watched shows 'The Office' and 'Friends,' which will soon appear exclusively on rival services.
"For consumers, this can mean only one thing: Soon they’ll have to subscribe to six or eight streaming services and pay for a lot of drecky content they don't watch to get the stuff they do."
That sentence serves as an accurate description of what cable subscribers have been experiencing for years. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Adam: Some excellent points and Mr. Jenkins has made some likely valid observations. Yet, we've seen how this plays out before with the build out of pay and basic cable channels. Audiences are fragmented, M&A activity increases, and eventually the stronger ones survive as the ad world continues to pay more for ads reaching fewer eyeballs. And someday, sleepy consumers will awake to find their streaming collection of channels costs about as much as cable's video packages...and there's still nothing to watch.
Perhaps one under-estimated factor is the studio model. Program and film libraries have long-term value. To harvest that value, those assets have to be licensed to other channels. For numerous streaming providers, that's a futures game. Nevertheless, quite interesting times we live in.
Since 60% or more of Netflix's total viewing tonnage consists of off-network fare like "The Office", the loss of many of these shows and their deployment on rival SVOD platforms being created by Disney, Comcast, etc. presents a huge problem for Netflix. It's well enough to maintain a stiff upper lip and claim that the amount of streaming activity will now increase---as it, no doubt, will---but Netflix must find a way to stock its library with replacements for the lost content and "origiinal" programming is a very costly---and risky---way to go about it. While they are past their prime, almost all of the off-network programs are proven winners with many fans and the ability to woo new ones via the re-run route. This is not the case with new shows---many of which will be duds.