Interesting article in The New Yorker. After years of being a superbly run business with very loyal customers, over the last year or so Netflix has made one stumble after the other and looks to be on the road to ruin, or be absorbed by the Borg of Amazon. In fact, their recent quarterly conference call announced a loss and a sharply declining rate of subscriber growth, the lifeblood of their business. The reasons would appear to be alienating their once-loyal customers and failing to adapt to a changing market:
It’s a bad time, too, for Netflix to have declining subscriber loyalty. The company believes that the mail-order-DVD business is finished, and that our DVD players are following our VCRs to the junkyard. So it is killing off that part of its business. Unfortunately, though, that’s the part with the high barriers to entry. It’s not easy for a startup to build massive warehouses and systems for mailing discs. It is easy, however, to get into the streaming business. Yesterday, for example, we learned of a startup called NimbleTV, which plans to let you watch all the channels you subscribe to through your cable provider on your phone or your tablet. If you had that, would you want Netflix, too?
Netflix fears that just distributing digital content is a mug’s game. Anyone can move bits around, which means that the price for doing so will just keep dropping. So it’s trying to create its own original content. But, so far at least, it’s not very good at doing so. “Lilyhammer,” a mobster show that Netflix introduced in January, has gotten killed by reviewers; I gave up on the first episode after fifteen minutes of mediocre acting and clumsy dialogue. Early next year, Netflix will release a new season of “Arrested Development,” which will surely be better. But the company is in an odd spot, facing the same competition problem it avoided when it spun off Roku. If its shows are bad, it’s embarrassing. If they’re good, they could irritate partners. Netflix needs content from AMC, for example. But will those negotiations get harder once Netflix is creating its own shows to compete with “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”
It’s a story at least as old as buggy-whip manufacturers facing the coming Automobile Age: what do you do when the core of your business is becoming obsolete?
Netflix compounded their long-term problem with some of the most boneheaded customer-related moves I’ve seen in a long time: jacking up prices; splitting the DVD and streaming businesses, making people pay for both instead of a combined service, while not automatically transferring the customer’s queue from the DVD to streaming sides (many, many people were incensed at losing their queues); and then having weak streaming offerings, having lost a couple of big contracts (Starz and one other I can’t recall). In short, they took all the goodwill they had built up, spit on it, then stabbed it in the gut and left it bleeding on the pavement.
And now they’re in trouble. Gee, I wonder why?
I’d been a very happy, loyal Netflix customer since about 2003, and I’d also made good money on the stock as an investor. But, like many, the last year or so has soured me. I switched to streaming as I was getting damaged discs more and more often, indicating Netflix wasn’t renewing their supply of DVDs. But then I discovered that the digital catalog was pathetic — at least with regard to things I wanted to watch. So, for now, I’ve gone back to DVD and the one-disc at a time plan.
But, for how long?
Amazon has a much better streaming catalog, and I can either rent or “buy to own” the digital copy. If I get a Roku box, I can watch my Amazon videos on it. (Yes, I can with Netflix, too, but… watch what?) And getting the Roku (1) would let me cancel my cable TV subscription, saving serious money. (The only reason I haven’t is the apparent lack of NFL games via Roku or other streaming option.) For what would I need Netflix?
From the New Yorker piece, it sounds like many are asking the same question.
(1) Ironic that Netflix invented the device that would encourage many to say “bye-bye” to Netflix.