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[video] Can Netflix Up Its Game Even More?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) CEO Reed Hastings has done what seemed to be impossible.

He has created a huge entertainment network without a single broadcast license or cable channel. He has successfully made the transition from a service delivered by postmen to one delivered via the Internet.

At its expected opening valuation this morning of $23.3 billion, based on an after-hours rise of 17% in the stock price, Netflix is now worth more than 13 times the $1.7 billion value Wunderlich Securities put on Disney's (DIS) ABC Network back in 2012. At the same time, ABC's ESPN sports networks were said to be worth $40 billion.

The lesson of Netflix and ESPN is that we're living in a new media world where the volume of programming you can deliver determines network value, and that volume is no longer limited to the bandwidth of a TV channel.

Netflix delivers more programming than anyone else. That sounds simple, but delivering on that promise took some major technological feats, such as building Netflix access directly into TVs and finding ways to get Netflix content closer to subscribers.

What looks like a programming advantage is, in fact, a technological one.

That's why Hastings could call HBO his "bitch," as he reportedly did during yesterday's conference call, after the company announced fourth-quarter net income of $48 million on revenue of $1.18 billion and said it added 4.17 million members during the quarter, bringing its total subscriber count to more than 44 million. 

HBO and Netflix are no longer even comparable. HBO is a TV channel, like ABC. Netflix is a program delivery platform, like Comcast (CMCSA) or DirecTV (DTV).

Further evidence of Netflix' network status is over its fireplace mantle, where it now has three Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for the series House of Cards.

Keeping that momentum going, however, is going to be a challenge now that everyone knows how it's done. Other "over-the-top" networks -- networks that use the Internet to reach customers without broadcast and cable gatekeepers -- can acquire most of Netflix's catalog, and Amazon (AMZN) has even followed it into original programming, with shows such as the comedy Alpha House, created by Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau.

While Netflix has created a vast content delivery system called Open Connect that can get its content close to consumers, the last mile remains under the control of carriers such as Comcast and AT&T (T).

A court ruling this month gutting the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules temporarily sank Netflix' stock price, but in a letter to shareholders, the company said it would lead consumer protests if "degradation" of Netflix downloads occurred.

The question for investors in valuing Netflix is what to call it. If you see it as just a network, like ABC, or even a set of networks like ESPN, it may be overvalued. But if you see it as a platform, competing with DirecTV, cable networks and Internet carriers, it still has a lot of room to grow and a lot of challenges to meet along the way.

Can Netflix maintain its content library in competition with Amazon, Comcast and the rest? Can it maintain access to customers without net neutrality rules? How much exclusive content can Netflix afford to create, competing for talent against both TV networks and Hollywood studios?

Netflix is clearly in a new league now. And we're only now going to see how good a game it's got, or whether it is, indeed, a house of cards.

At the time of publication, the author owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.

 

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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