Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) has been in the news because in a relatively short time, it will lose The Office and Friends, two of its most-watched shows. It seems logical to think that losing those programs to streaming services operated by, respectively, AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) will hurt the streaming leader.
But it won't, because popular old shows that people have already seen aren't what drive Netflix subscriptions. The company keeps (and grows) its user base by offering original programming in the same way AT&T's HBO has done for decades.
If Netflix has a new show that people are talking about (and it really only takes one), then it remains worth the price. That's a model HBO has shown works, as consumers steadily pay $15 a month even as beloved shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Game of Thrones come to an end.
Stranger Things is a much-discussed Netflix original. Image source: Netflix.
It's about credibility
The Office and Friends are like a bowl of chips put out at a party. You like chips and will gladly eat some, but you didn't go to the party because you knew a bowl of chips would be served.
People mindlessly watch shows that are familiar to them. That's why The Big Bang Theory does well in syndication. People are flipping around, see the show, and stop on it because they know what to expect.
That's the role Friends and The Office play on Netflix. People watch those shows because they're filler -- something they know and are comfortable with. Those series are worth more to a platform that already has an audience. They won't be major draws for AT&T's or Comcast's new services because "hours watched" are not the same as "reasons someone subscribes."
HBO subscriptions sometimes dip slightly when a popular show ends. That will likely happen now that Game of Thrones has ended, and it might be exacerbated by the company not having another major hit in its current lineup.
That volatility is relative, and HBO operating revenue has hovered between just under $1.5 billion and $1.67 billion a quarter for the past nine quarters, according to company financials. Its fortunes rise and fall based on its originals. People joined because Game of Thrones was a must-see, and they may leave until the next series like that comes along.
Netflix will follow the same pattern, but it produces a lot more original series than HBO. Yes, it will lose people when Stranger Things ends, and maybe it lost a few because of other shows that have come and gone.
In reality, however, Netflix and HBO are comparable. Both have built up a certain amount of credibility, which has subscribers believing that the next must-see hit is coming. And that alone keeps them on board.
What's next for Netflix?
The online streaming leader has only rarely had shows like HBO's series of hits, which have become cultural phenomena. What is has done well is pump out genre hits -- shows that each keep a small section of its audience satisfied.
That may not be as splashy as delivering the next Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, The Sopranos, or Orange Is the New Black, but it works. People pay for HBO and Netflix due to fear of missing out on something -- the next big thing, or just a show they really like.
The challenge for HBO is that it lacks hits to replace Game of Thrones. That makes its next round of new shows important because if they fail, some consumers may have no reason to pay for the service.
Netflix does not have that problem. It has a slew of modest, midsize, and large hits to keep people involved. It also has become the top spot for comedy specials (an area HBO used to dominate) and it has a least a few movies each year that seem to resonate with a large audience.
People may spend fewer hours on Netflix when Friends and The Office go away. They're not likely to cancel their subscriptions in large numbers because they would be missing out on too many shows that their peers, friends, and family are talking about.
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