Netflix CEO Reed Hastings had the best line of the day at the UBS Annual Global Media and Communications Conference. Told that last year his company was the object of “mystique, envy and fear” at the confab, Hastings said: “Now it’s just pity.” Well, yes — considering that his company’s stock has fallen 77% since mid-July, when Netflix boosted prices by 60% for consumers who wanted to continue to receive DVDs and stream videos. “We had done so many difficult things that we became overconfident,” Hastings says. “Our big obsession for the year was, ‘Let’s not live and die by DVD.’ ” But the change “turned out to be a little too fast. … We berate ourselves tremendously for that lack of insight.” But his appearance at the UBS gathering was designed to demonstrate that Netflix is back on track — and that its shares are worth buying again. For investors who believe that Web video is going to soar, “we’re the leading play on that thesis. … As long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot anymore, it’s a great opportunity.” He adds that “there’s no effective competitor for exactly what we do.”
Hastings predicted that within the next 10 years about half of all TV viewing will come via the Internet. He says that TV manufacturers “want you to live in their device.” While about a third of TV sets sold today can connect directly to the Internet, “in a few years most of the TVs sold will be smart TVs. … It’s a phenomenal revolution.” The biggest loser will be broadcast TV, he says. “It’ll be declining like land-line telephony. … To some degree we’ll look at broadcast in 20 years as being like (telephone) party lines.” And as broadband providers include more fiber optic lines in their networks, they’ll be able to transmit Internet video at speeds of 1 gigabit per second. “Peak Netflix viewing on a Saturday night could still fit through one fiber optic (line),” he says. “A gigabit is a tiny fraction of what’s possible over fiber optic.” Hastings says that providers shouldn’t have to raise prices, or resort to usage-based pricing, to handle all of that Internet video traffic — although they might try to do so. “It would be unfortunate because it’s not based on the costs,” which are fixed, he says. Consumers also might balk. “Time Warner Cable tried it a couple of years ago in Texas and backed down. … I doubt it will happen.”
Hastings identified HBO’s digital service, HBO Go, as Netflix’s biggest potential rival. “HBO Go will become HBO. It’s so much better than (conventional pay TV’s) on-demand system.” While he expects to see many other competitors, he notes that “HBO and Netflix spend $1B-$2B a year on content. At this point, none of those guys have chosen to do that.” Hastings says he’s “very, very excited” about Netflix’s upcoming original series House Of Cards. But he doesn’t know whether Netflix will ramp up its spending on originals. “If it’s successful (then) we’ll grow it.” He says that there’s “a lot of artistic talent in the world” and “what we need is more money in the ecosystem that flows to content producers.” And he says that Netflix doesn’t have to grow by taking subscribers away from cable and satellite. “We don’t have sports or news or reality (shows). If you’re tight on money you might cut HBO and use Netflix. … But it’s not a direct competitor because many people use both.”
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