So far, Netflix has proved doubters spectacularly wrong. By all accounts, it is making a steady transition to online delivery, and its customers seem to be adapting as well. So perhaps a new consensus has developed: that Netflix is among the firms that will survive the transition from physical media delivery to online delivery.
If you have been in most Best Buy outlets recently, you get a sense that Best Buy is serous about ultimately phasing out sales of physical media content, to the extent that floor space is an indication of what a retailer expects to sell.
Perhaps oddly, then, one might ask the question of whether online delivery is an unalloyed good thing for Netflix. Some might argue it will pose new, and different questions, for Netflix.
Up to this point, most seem to agree that switching to online delivery saves Netflix money because the company avoids paying postal fees for delivery. That's true.
But content owners are becoming more aggressive about protecting their online rights, and it is a reasonable prediction that Netflix will have to pay much more, in the future, for access to content it can stream. That obviously could pose issues for the revenue model, given the low costs Netflix now imposes on users of its library.
If its content acquisition costs rise, Netflix will face margin pressure, with the obvious choice of raising prices or watching its margins tumble. Higher prices might limit growth, but higher prices seem almost inevitable, at some point.
In the chart, for example, note the blue bar, representing streaming content costs, compared to the white bar, which represents DVD content acquisition costs.
At the same time, a switch to streaming, rather than DVD rentals, will cost Netflix more, over time. Now, Netflix can buy a DVD, pay once, and rent the disc until it is worn out. When streaming, the typical deal is that the content owner gets 60 percent of the gross rental fee. So there is more financial leverage when sourcing content by buying DVDs.
Other distributors pay similar amounts, of course, but generally price each viewing at higher rates, ranging from $1.99 to $4.99 per movie (or more) on Apple's iTunes, Amazon On Demand, Vudu, and cable, satellite or telco video on demand services, for example. TV show rentals might cost the end user $1 per episode.
Netflix now offers a $7.99 per month unlimited streaming service, and you can guess that the economics can invert, given reasonable volume. You might wonder how Netflix can even offer the unlimited $7.99 streaming plan, and the answer is that it has agreements that were very generous. But it takes no insight to argue that future agreements will not offer such advantages.
The Netflix deal for Starz contnet, signed in October 2008, gave Netflix access to approximately 2,500 Disney and Sony movies for less than $0.15 per subscriber per month for its content, compared to the $2 to $4 per subscriber per month that TV operators typically pay Starz.
Netflix signed a deal to stream content from Epix, which is owned by three studios, Paramount Pictures, Lions Gate and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The exact terms of the deal haven't been disclosed, but numerous reports say it's for up to $1 billion over five years.
Importantly, Netflix won't be able to stream Epix's movies until 90 days after they have reached Epix's distribution window, which is typically 6-12 months after a movie is first available on premium movie channels, so this deal won't address Netflix's problem that it offers no current releases.
On the operating cost side, one might argue that more streaming means less mailing of DVDs, and hence less cost. That's correct. But one might quickly conclude that Netflix will have to pay more for streaming rights than it can possibly save in postage and fulfillment costs.
Perhaps the impact already is being felt. In the third quarter of 2010, Netflix's operating margin was 12.6 percent and net margin was 6.9 percent, down from 14.9 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, in the second quarter. Some would say that is the result of higher content payments not balanced by an equal reduction in distribution cost.
There are other issues as well. At some point, if consumers start paying for bandwidth consumed that accounts for higher video consumption, the implied cost of streaming delivery will grow, increasing the "price" part of the "value versus price" equation. That could make other alternatives, especially a multichannel video subscription plus digital video recorder, a much more attractive "value."
That will especially be true for wireless providers, as people are getting used to watching video on their mobiles, and viewing on an iPad or wireless-connected PC also can be a satisfactory experience. Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett, for example, expects the revenue per megabit for wireless providers to fall from 43 cents today to just 2 cents in 2014.
Down the road are other potential risks to the business model as well. In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued adecision that calls into question the First Sale Doctrine. Though it was a case related to re-selling software, the court observed that the policy implications might affect movies as well.
To get early access to fresh content, Netflix will have to pay more. If it chooses not to do so, the value of its library might weaken, from a customer's perspective. If it pays more to acquire more, and fresher content, its costs go up. So Netflix might have to raise prices. That could change its place in the market.
Netflix could accept lower margins, up to a point. Amazon certainly seems willing to do so. But assuming Netflix can manage those challenges, it does seem that a strategic choice has to be made. Netflix can offer a wider array of current content at higher prices, or a more-limited range of library or catalog content at lower prices. Some would argue it will do both, offering "enough" content at "good enough" prices to establish its position within the overall online video market.
Even in the more-established "premium" channel space, there is content differentiation between HBO, Starz and Showtime because none of the networks can afford to buy rights to all "new release" movie content, for example.
The trick will be to build on the library while adding just enough fresh and recent content to remain competitive. It's a tall order, but Netflix has confounded its critics in the past.