Amazon vs. Netflix: Jeff Bezos Could Squash Reed Hastings Like a Bug

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In case you missed it, Amazon.com (AMZN) stole the rights to "Downton Abbey" reruns from Netflix (NFLX) last week. In and of itself, this is not a big deal, but don't ignore the news. Reed Hastings isn't. And, if he is, quite frankly, he's foolhardy.

Hastings likes to make you believe his company operates from a position of strength. He uses all sorts of smoke and mirrors to do it, but, ultimately, Netflix cannot continue to finance its admirable content acquisition, original programming and international expansion efforts by refinancing and taking out debt.

It will catch up with the company. When it does, the business -- as powerful and impressive as it is as a consumer service -- will crash like (no pun intended) a "House of Cards".

I watched the first episode of "House of Cards" over the weekend. It's good enough that I will be back at some point this week or over the weekend for another episode or two. At this point, however, it's not what it needs to be for Netflix; it's not of HBO quality.

I'm no television critic, but it seems to me the people who produced "House of Cards" for Netflix are not masters of the art of weaving together a compelling storyline in an hour, yet making it believable. That's what HBO does so well.

But that's beside the point. Even if "House of Cards" kills it, Netflix needs to kill it again and again and yet again to even place itself in the same league as HBO. That's next to impossible.

If Netflix manages to accomplish this, there's no guarantee it will matter. You're still giving away all of your programming -- original or third-party -- at the bargain price of $8/month. When subscription fees comprise your only line of revenue in a business that burns cash like there's no tomorrow, things simply cannot end well without considerable and, quite possibly, unworkable structural change.

The existence of giants such as Amazon as streaming/on-demand middlemen -- not to mention Apple ( AAPL) and Google ( GOOG) -- makes things even more complicated. These guys have cash cows in place to subsidize something like an expensive streaming operation; Netflix absolutely does not.

Consider what Netflix is up against. At the beginning of 2012, the company had about $508 million in cash and cash equivalents. At the end of 2013, it was down to just over $290 million. As I explain in the article I link to in the second paragraph of this piece, we're seeing a repeat of late 2011. Netflix is taking out more debt to beef up its weak cash pile. Therefore, it will likely have something closer to $700 million by the end of Q1 or Q2.

Meantime, Amazon started 2012 with just under $5.3 billion in cash and cash equivalents. It ended the year just shy of $8.1 billion. You can get these numbers from each company's annual report filed last week at the Securities and Exchange Commission Website.

On the surface, it appears that both companies run the same type of offense. They're aggressively spending to seize the massive long-term opportunities that lie ahead. But, make no mistake, Amazon is nothing like Netflix.

Their cash and spend situations are quite different. Clearly, the competitive landscapes are as well. And, in terms of revenue, annually we're looking at a roughly $55 billion difference between the two companies.

If you look at how Amazon spends its money, you'll see there's flexibility at the moment and much more so on the horizon. From the company's Q4 2012 earnings call last week:
Cost of sales was $16.14 billion, or 75.9% of revenue, compared with 79.3%. Fulfillment, marketing, technology and content in G&A combined was $4.45 billion, or 20.9% of sales, up approximately 293 basis points year-over-year. Fulfillment was $2.2 billion, or 10.3% of revenue compared with 9.3%. Tech and content was $1.22 billion, or 5.7% of revenue, compared with 4.5%. Marketing was $833 million, or 3.9% of revenue compared with 3.3%.

We can argue all day about Amazon's strategy - you know I'm ultra-bullish on it -- but it's tough to make the case that Amazon could not, pretty much at will, stop Netflix in its tracks.

Jeff Bezos has started a mini-bidding war on content. If he decides to kick things into high gear (you know, take a billion or so from fulfillment and put it towards content), it's lights out for Netflix. If another player in the space -- one with firepower -- gets serious about buying content, Netflix will likely struggle to stay in business.

Two key thoughts:

One, I know what you're thinking. Will Amazon buy Netflix? Based on everything I have said in this article, I'm not sure why it would. All Amazon would be doing is taking on billions in debt -- just a trashed balance sheet -- when all it needs to do is outbid Netflix for content that, for the most part, isn't exclusively licensed anyway.

Simply put, I love Jeff Bezos. However, if he decides to buy Netflix, I will likely have my first "bad" thing to say about the guy. There's no sense in it. None.

Two, whether or not Bezos decides to "kick things into high gear" depends on if he thinks doing so would benefit Amazon's core businesses. While it would be fun to watch, he's not going to squash Netflix just for kicks or because he can. Everything Amazon does -- stream content, offer cloud services to consumers and the enterprise, build hardware -- gets done, in the first place, because it furthers Bezos's mission for his company.

It has nothing to do with competition against fellow giants such as Apple or Google. And it has nothing to do with a petty, but easy battle against a relative pimple such as Netflix. If it's good for Amazon, Bezos will kick the streaming wars into high gear. The move, if Bezos approves it, will benefit Amazon. In that scenario, Reed Hastings' company ends up little more than collateral damage.

-- Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is TheStreet's Director of Social Media. Pendola's daily contributions to TheStreet frequently appear on CNBC and at various top online properties, such as Forbes.

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