Today Netflix announced the formal division of its business into two separate businesses, Netflix (streaming) and Qwikster (DVDs by mail). When Netflix originally announced its pricing plan changes in July, I suggested that this could be the inevitable outcome. But what’s next for Netflix? Following the separation to its logical conclusion, Netflix could spin off Qwikster into its own separate company, with no remaining ties to Netflix. Alternatively, they could create a tracking stock, allowing private or public investment in just one of the two businesses (this is most often done for the high-growth subsidiary). Or Netflix could retain the Qwikster brand, with its own management team, and that team could focus on ways to grow the DVD business (which, IMHO, is in an inevitable decline).
The action to take depends on Netflix’s corporate strategy and goals. I speculate that Netflix is attempting to become a streaming-only business, with no DVD operations to consider when negotiating for content streaming contracts. I also suspect that, if Netflix looked at its customer behavior data, they’d discover that people stream different content than they request on DVD. So, as Netflix separates itself from the DVD business, they will attempt to acquire different content libraries entirely, not just different content streaming terms.
So what content are people streaming? To answer that, let’s look at two separate indicators of actual user behavior: InstaWatcher, which offers an advanced searching/sorting interface to the Netflix instant queue, and the Pirate Bay, possibly the best-known source for finding a Bittorrent (peer-to-peer) file sharing cloud. Neither of these sites distributes content, but both make it easier for users to find the content they want and start downloading it.
InstaWatcher tracks which content users add to their queues via the site (or begin playing via the site). The most popular content since the site started tracking statistics in March 2009 are overwhelmingly movies (Mad Men season 1 creeps into the lineup at number 38). And virtually any way you view the InstaWatcher stats on most popular content, movies top the list.
The Pirate Bay, on the other hand, tracks the most torrented content — a good indicator of what people will choose to watch when they don’t restrict themselves to readily-available content (i.e., in Netflix’s library or via on-demand streaming from a cable/television service like Comcast or Verizon FiOS). And here, the data shows a different story: following 9 movies (including new DVD releases like Thor and the as-yet-unreleased Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the 10th most popular torrent is WWE Night of Champions, followed by the Vampire Diaries season 3. True Blood season 4 follows shortly behind.
And this is before most of the new fall television season premiers (the major networks start premiering this week and next).
The Pirate Bay’s “top 100″ list has a much more dramatic recency bias than InstaWatcher, whose “most popular” listing considers all activity since March 15, 2009. Taken together, this suggests a trend: people are starting to stream content they otherwise would have watched on television, as shorter shows (hour-long dramas and 30-minute sitcoms). This makes sense, because these shorter shows are shows of convenience, things you watch when you have an hour or 90 minutes free. Watching a 2- or 3-hour movie on a DVD takes a bit more advance planning.
So what does this mean for Netflix? It means that, if I were Netflix, I wouldn’t be overly worried about losing the Starz content (which was Netflix’s largest source of movies), and I’d be more concerned about working deals with TV content providers to “syndicate” entire seasons of popular shows. I’d be negotiating for True Blood, Weeds, the Sopranos, and other premium content people can watch a show at a time. And I’d be thinking about doing deals to finance the production of television shows, by going directly to studios. Warner Brothers studios, which produces popular shows like The Big Bang Theory and the Vampire Diaries, comes to mind; so does the BBC, which produced Coupling, the forerunner to Friends, and Doctor Who, whose re-imagined series enjoys surprisingly mainstream popularity. And I might consider working with Hulu to offer new network television via Netflix streaming.
Whatever Netflix does, the next year or two will be fascinating to watch, and I suspect Netflix will be at the forefront of the evolution of streaming media for years to come.