Netflix won't take over the world at $7.99 per month

It may sound trivial, but the on-demand video company is selling used content at an unsustainably low price.

By Dec 10, 2013 11:40AM
Netflix website © Mike Blake/Reuters

Keep it simple.


That's good advice in life, and it's great advice for technology investors. The more novel a thing is, the less we can predict about its future -- so it's important that we stick to the basics. What is a company selling? What price can it get? What are its costs?


Netflix (NFLX) sells used video content. It repackages movies that have left the theater, and television shows that have concluded their season. The video-on-demand service charges $7.99/month per subscriber, and pays somewhere in the neighborhood of $6/month per viewer for content, plus any and all expenses.


The company is widely seen as a threat to cable TV, and the success of original content like the Emmy Award-winning "House of Cards" would seem to be proof that the challenge is real. However, definition and price work together. Original content cannot be had for $6/month per viewer, and in order to turn a profit, Netflix must resell content that it cannot afford to produce on its own. That makes it a used video seller.


This is may sound trivial, but it's an important point. The moving pictures that Netflix sells for $7.99/month cost far more than that to create.


Let's break it down. In the third quarter, Comcast (CMCSA) paid out $35/month per subscriber in content costs. This money went to content providers like Time Warner (TWX), whose network division includes HBO and basic cable channels like TBS and TNT. This $35/month is supplemented by advertising, which can account for a third of total revenue -- or more, in the case of a high-profile channel like ESPN -- putting us at $50/month or more in total revenue per subscriber.

The cost of operating Time Warner's network was 61 percent of revenue last quarter; Disney (DIS) and 21st Century Fox (FOXA) paid out even higher percentages. In other words, we're looking at a minimum of $30/month per subscriber to run one of these cable networks -- a ballpark figure, but one that's nearly four times the price of a Netflix subscription.


Thirty dollars per month is an average, not a total. In other words, this is what it costs to produce the televised content that the average cable customer watches in a month. Whatever the New York Times (NYT) and Senator John McCain might think, there's no premium here for channels you never use, or shows you don't like. Cable TV is a buffet, and the quantity and quality of food are determined by what gets eaten. Cable customers like to believe they'd save money by purchasing channels a la carte, but in reality, they're only paying for what's on their plate. 


No math yet exists that would allow Netflix to cook the same meal at a quarter of the price. In FY 2012, Time Warner, Disney and 21st Century Fox logged operating expenses of $24 billion for their cable networks. That's the equivalent of 250 million Netflix subscriptions, or three times what the video-on-demand company estimates as its total addressable market in the United States.


Still, there's no denying that cable companies are hurting. And since Netflix already controls 89 percent of the streaming market, it seems likely that future growth will continue to come at the expense of cable. So far, cable providers have made up for lost eyeballs by raising their prices, rather than cutting costs -- notably, Time Warner Cable (TWC) lost a game of chicken with CBS (CBS) earlier this year -- but this only makes the problem worse. Viewers are moving away from the medium that actually pays for content, and adopting one that does not. That affects CBS just as much as it does TWC.


In the end, content providers and cable companies may join forces to protect an ecosystem that they both depend on. This could happen in any number of ways. They may cooperate to prevent or delay content from moving to Netflix. They could throw the game in favor of in-house streaming services, like Comcast's Streampix and Dish Network's (DISH) Blockbuster. They might transition to usage-based cable internet, a move that would effectively raise the price of a Netflix subscription, and which the FCC has tacitly endorsed.


Certainly, content providers will eventually demand a better payout from Netflix, should it continue eating into their revenue base. It's not clear that Netflix could pass on these higher expenses by raising prices. An RBC survey taken earlier this year found that 17 percent of Netflix customers were either 'very' or 'extremely' likely to dump their subscriptions in the event of a 13 percent price hike -- a negative statistic that somehow received positive spin.

Amazon (AMZN) and Hulu already offer competing services at the same or, in Amazon's case, a lower rate. Netflix enjoyed an early advantage in the form of smart TVs and streaming devices like Google's (GOOG) Chromecast, which bundled the company's app; but with personal computers and tablets invading the living room, competitors will have fewer barriers to entry, and pirated content will continue to haunt the on-demand industry.


There's no predicting the future, but there's also no reason to believe that Netflix will ever be more than what it currently is: a place to watch things a second time. In all likelihood, the streaming giant will continue to charge $7.99/month. It will continue to pay $6/month for content, little of it original. And Netflix won't be taking over the world.


More from Minyanville

Dec 10, 2013 2:39PM
Comcast pays $35 in content costs that is an expense in my accounting world not a number to be added to revenue.  Anyway, what I glean from this article is that cable really is gouging consumers because of lack of competition.  More power to Netflix and others that challenge the bloated over priced cable model.
Dec 10, 2013 2:59PM
What's wrong with providing a service and making a steady profit? You don't have to always be taking over the world. That's just the Wal Street mentality.

Only thing this article did was remind me that I'm paying $100+ a month for cable when 90% of what I watch is netflix. Especially after football season is over.

Peace out Time Warner ya overcharging ol butt muncher.

Dec 10, 2013 12:13PM
Pointless article that seems to have decided the premise first and wrote the story to arrive at that conclusion.

Technology is making the cost of producing broadcast quality content drop.
Dec 10, 2013 2:32PM
Are these the same people that predicted Netflix would collapse a few years ago, before the stock skyrocketed, they split their service and lost allot of customers, then they added programming and won the customers back with a choice of dvd's or streaming, the biggest problem Netflix has is the corporate greed and compitition of rival corporations, that is common in business. Netflix is still growing so whats the problem?
Dec 10, 2013 2:49PM
I like when companies compete with the thieving cable companies. 
Dec 10, 2013 3:13PM
If you have ever been engrossed in a tv series and never had the experience of being able to watch the show, concentrate on the plot and skip "mini-cliff hangers" at every commercial and the "grand cliff hangers" at the end of that episode, you owe yourself a try at this pleasure of seeing 8 seasons without a season of reruns, skipped weeks because of emmy's or some other B/S.



I love Netflix!  I am sure the satellite and cable companies hate them because they cannot gauge the public more for watching movies. I think satellite and cable companies are way overpriced for what you get. There are thousands of old movies that are very good that Netflix has yet to tap. Half the new stuff isn't worth watching anyway. Hang in there Netflix, let the money grubbers squirm. 

Dec 10, 2013 3:54PM
I love how MSN keeps on hating on Netflix. Who writes these things?
Dec 10, 2013 3:43PM
Dear MSN: Perhaps if you did not have clueless 19 year olds writing your content, it might make sense. When last we heard, Netflix was still making a profit--a decent profit, from the numbers cited. A 40% return on investment is considered very good in almost any industry. Traditionally--when this country had a healthy manufacturing and service base--a 10% ROI (after inflation, if any) was considered quite respectable.

Start hiring adults to write your content. Then, perhaps, it might be worth reading. .
Dec 10, 2013 3:43PM
While critics abound, Netflix remains the best bang for your buck.
Loyal Customer.

Dec 10, 2013 3:29PM
Give me 37 million people giving me 1.99 / month and I will be happy!!!
Dec 10, 2013 3:34PM
I have not had cable tv for a number of years, due to the excessive cost (a minimum of over $50.00 month in my market) and the limited number of programs and time I would watch. I have a roof antenna, but only get about three channels off the air. Since I have to have fast internet at home because of work ($55.00 month), I tried Netflix. I have been very satisfied with Netflix, and have watched some very entertaining series and documentaries and movies. I especially love the Scifry channel reruns, and the National Geographic and Discovery Channel programs. I can choose what to watch and when, which works for my odd schedule. I would happily pay up to $15.00 month for the service. Netflix needs to figure out how to be profitable because it is a wonderful service. When I visit family members with cable tv, I have a difficult time finding anything I want to watch, despite the 40 or more channels they receive. Cable tv made the broadcast networks work harder to compete, and Netflix and companies like it are now challenging the cable companies, which is how the free market works.
Dec 10, 2013 2:54PM
Terrible article.  You made a bunch of comparisons between the cost structure of Netflix vs. Comcast and ignored the fact that big cable providers have huge infrastructure investments in the cable running to each home that Netflix doesn't have to support.  Additionally, it's a pretty thin premise that content providers will all collude to forego royalties on otherwise worthless content to push us all back into higher cost cable plans.  That assumption seems to be based only on your guesses and speculation.

Netflix is succeeding because they are providing a product/service that customers value.  Any cable provider or content developer who fails to adapt to changing markets is doomed to failure.  For a relevant example (clearly lacking in this online article), look how hard record labels fought against online music.  They lost that battle.  I don't think I've seen anyone walking around with a portable CD player for years, but I see many many people daily listening to music on their smartphone.

Dec 10, 2013 3:58PM
So, just because Netflix doesn't line it's CEO's pockets the same way as Time warner OR Disney et. al. that means that they cannot succeed as a company? I love the irrational crap that our "news" websites CREATE to influence the minds of the sheeple. Ya, I said it, this is all a bunch of made up crap to excuse the outrageous costs of cable TV.
Dec 10, 2013 2:42PM

You cannot compare Netflix and what cable (or satellite operators) offer. Huge difference. Cable and satellite offer CURRENT programming, the current run of shows, live presentation of the news, sports and more. Buying NOW programming costs far more for the provider or viewer, period. Netflix airs OLD programming. Many times, they are two seasons behind with a TV program. The value of old programming is far less -- and therefore far cheaper a old programming provider like Netflix pays.


Quit comparing two totally different things. They are two totally different markets. If you are willing to put up with the "latest" being what was on TV two years ago, get your Netflix at $7.99. If you want what is on now, you better be ready to pony up, big time.


I work in the cable industry. The number one thing driving up cable rates is skyrocketing programming costs and broadcast TV retransmission fees. It's ridiculous. Our company is seeing increases in the 10-30% PER YEAR range. There's a whole lot of greed in the entertainment business, particularly sports programming. That greed is killing the industry.


It's high time people said ENOUGH!



Dec 10, 2013 2:58PM
That is why Netflix started to produce its content by itself.  Content providers pissed off Netflix. They are price gouging.  Now Netflix can grow in two directions.  Take that greedy!  Maybe they can get into becoming the internet provider next.
Dec 10, 2013 2:56PM
Cable and network TV just don't understand the other problem with there to expensive offerings...being forced to watch 17 minuets per hour of inane advertising! Go Netflix my your heard increase and the other over priced gougers die a quick 17 minute advertising death.
Dec 10, 2013 4:05PM
NetFlix is awesome and their original shows are really good!  Hemlock Grove and Orange is the new Black, are off the hook good.  Where do they get its just a place to watch things a second time?  If it weren't for NetFlix I would have never watched the Walking Dead or the L Word or the new Dr WHO. Loving me some NetFlix, this was written by someone who is clueless about this company.  Their projections mean nothing to me. 
Dec 10, 2013 1:56PM
The smart money doesn't buy the new car, it pays fairly for a good used one. And ditto with A-V entertainment. (But I surely do appreciate the folks who buy new and subscribe premium. Thanks, guys!)
Dec 10, 2013 3:49PM
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