Think you’ve got a bead on the digital content industry? There are more players nipping at Netflix’s (NASDAQ:NFLX) heels than you might think, and even though none of them alone are even a strong runner-up to Netflix’s (admittedly waning) dominance in the world of on-demand video … collectively, these names are a threat to the current leader’s status.
The irony? The best way for investors to make a play in the streaming content business might not even be with a streaming video stock.
First things first, though: A look at — and quick update on — the major names making waves in the digital content business. In alphabetical order:
Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) was built on sales of books, then sales of all other types of physical goods. As consumer tastes have changed, though, Amazon has adapted. Its Prime members ($79 per year) have free access to a collection of television programs and movies that’s about a third to half the size of the Netflix library, and to get the good/new stuff, viewers must pay a fee for access to each video.
Amazon is making a dent, though, as the number of people who used Amazon Prime in September was 30% higher than it was February, from 17% of the market to 22%.
The former king of VHS rentals is now owned by DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH), and the company has created a compelling hybrid service, where customers can view on-demand videos on a per-program basis, as well as rent DVDs. The twist is that customers can swap them by mail, or through Blockbuster stores, or both. The entry price of $9.99 per month only gets you one DVD at a time, though, which doesn’t feel like enough to consumers who can get essentially the same through Netflix.
It should come as no surprise that the Internet giant would try its hand at television, though Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has yet to do anything all that disruptive despite a fairly slick technology that turns your television (and other devices) into a web-connected smart TV. It might be uninteresting because Google neither creates nor provides any content; the hardware is just a middleman.
Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) owns HBO, so by extension, it owns HBO Go … a service that looks and feels like Netflix, but with less content (though higher, HBO quality). The good news: It’s free with your HBO cable subscription. The bad news: It’s not available to anyone who’s not a regular cable-HBO customer … yet, anyway.
The joint venture between Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Disney (NYSE:DIS) and News Corp (NASDAQ:NWSA) could have been a threat to the likes of Netflix, and in some ways it is. But, given the names behind the company, Hulu’s premium service has been surprisingly anemic. That might be because all those owners had other (and sometimes competing) interests and never gave it a fair shake.
The name of this Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) property might be a tad misleading, as the site offers more than just music. Members can purchase a good-sized number of shows and movies on a per-piece basis. Still, Apple only controls 4% of the video-streaming market, and AppleTV seems to be struggling just to tread water.
Despite plenty of criticism (including from this journalist), there’s no denying that Netflix — the pioneer of the industry as we know it — still is the name all the rest of the players are gunning for. As of the latest look, Netflix has right around 30 million subscribers, and has generated $3.5 billion in revenue over the past four quarters. Problem: It has turned only $146 million of it into a profit, and next year isn’t expected to be much better.
Coinstar (NASDAQ:CSTR) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) have forged the newest partnership in the streaming industry, combining Redbox’s well-recognized name with Verizon’s technical prowess and large customer base. It remains to be seen where this goes, but with 34,600 kiosks already in place, the venture certainly had plenty of brand recognition.
This relatively new name in the industry has a surprisingly robust catalog, and is based roughly on the Apple model where users only pay for individual items they watch. Were it a better-established brand name, it might actually be a serious threat. Who owns and operates Vudu? Amazingly enough, Walmart (NYSE:WMT), which not only racks up a couple of bucks on each digital movie rental, but also is aiming to encourage those customers to convert their DVDs (which the retailer will gladly sell) into a digital format they can store and access online.
Comcast has thrown consumers something of a curveball with its fairly new Xfinity service. Most of its packages offer a combo of on-demand video titles (with a pretty good-sized catalog) and cable TV and/or Internet and/or phone services, thus justifying the entry price of $29.99 per month and up. It’s actually a pretty clever tactic — rather than bothering to compete head-on with Netflix, the company is leveraging its telco and cable capability to offer something in a way that Netflix can’t.
And the Winner Is …
It might be the biggest, but it’s no longer the best — Netflix has the least to offer investors at this point, as there’s just too much nagging competition that can afford to use a streaming video service as a loss leader to drive sales in other ways; Xfinity, Vudu and Amazon Prime are all examples.
In fact, those three are the names that likely will benefit the most from the continued advent of streaming video. It won’t be because of depth and quality of their digital content, but rather, because of what else those companies can sell to their digital content customers.
Hulu, HBO Go, iTunes, Blockbuster and GoogleTV (and all their backers), on the other hand, continue to struggle, with no clear edge with their digital content business. With a few tweaks here and there, that edge could be found — but those tweaks have yet to be made.
As for Redbox Instant, it’s just too soon to tell if the offering is strong enough to start taking market share away from competitors.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.