Hastings' Netflix-HBO Comparisons Will Blow Up in His Face

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- While it's unfortunate the media doesn't push Netflix (NFLX) to report how many people actually watch its original programming, it's no surprise.

Reed Hastings has done a wonderful job controlling the conversation that surrounds his company.

How else could he get media outlets to blindly assume Netflix originals are hits without verifiable proof? Or manage to convince a financial news network and Wall Street brokerage to allow a reporter and analyst to moderate the company's conference call? Or walk away unchallenged when he says I don't pay attention to churn so you shouldn't either?

His ability to manipulate popular conversation on Netflix prompted me to shoot fish in a barrel and recommend NFLX stock since around $60 (it's up around $260 now), while remaining bearish on his company because of, in part, a doomed-to-fail original programming strategy.

There's no logic behind Hastings not releasing viewing data for Netflix originals. We've been over this several times. He claims it's because Netflix, unlike traditional television, doesn't care what happens in the initial 24-hour window. At the same time, however, Hastings loves to discuss anticipation and excitement that accompanies the release of each full season. Still, he won't give us numbers after a week, after 30 days and, unless he changes his mind, after six months or a year.

Nonsensical. And a travesty that the media, particularly on Wall Street and in television, continue to give him a free pass.

But here's my take on why Hastings will not release ratings figures or anything resembling them, independently or through a third party.

Hastings set up this absurd comparison between Netflix and Time Warner's ( TWX) HBO. Thanks to a media that, by and large, stopped practicing journalism years ago, most people take the Netflix/HBO association seriously. As if 30 million subscribers requires no context; they're the same at Netflix as they are at HBO.

*(For the record, HBO has roughly 30 million U.S. subscribers and approximately 114 million worldwide. Netflix has about 30 million in the U.S. and 38 million globally).

Forget that Netflix is an $8 monthly credit card charge many of us forget about; whereas you're more likely to scrutinize the cash you pay for HBO each month, given that it's around twice as much and part of what could be a $50 to more than $100 expenditure.

Forget the financial health of the two businesses. Forget who really has shows that are verifiable hits. Forget that filmmakers go to HBO first, then Netflix if rejected. Forget that Hastings would give his pinkie finger to license HBO programming. Forget that, no matter what Netflix does, HBO continues to grow and expand on practically every metric imaginable, from subscribers to ratings.

But Hastings set up this Netflix/ HBO comparison. And he rides it hard, particularly as the media uncritically focuses on subscriber numbers.

If Hastings released numbers for, say, House of Cards, he would undoubtedly have this comparison blow up in his face.

We have no idea how many people watched House of Cards. Based on online traffic, one guess claims that between 1.5 million and 2.7 million people streamed at least one episode the day after its release.

Even as a critic of the company, I could get with the idea that -- splitting the middle -- 2.1 million viewers for your first original is pretty good. However, when you have ranted like Hastings has, you set yourself up for a hard fall even if you report a number that's formidable.

That's because 2.1 million represents just 5.5% of Netflix's total global subscriber base. But, beyond that, Hastings would have to defend against increased and less favorable comparisons to HBO.

Four million subscribers watched the critically-acclaimed VEEP across platforms. Five million watched Girls. Ten million saw True Blood. Fourteen million or so for Game of Thrones.

In that scenario, even the smooth-talking Hastings would have no choice but to concede to HBO. He couldn't get away with a simple we have lot of respect for them and we hope we can be as big as them one day. He would have to cease all comparisons or lose any credibility he has left.

If that 2.1 million estimate is in the ballpark, House of Cards drew only about half the audience of VEEP, an HBO original the network doesn't even run around calling a hit. And it's not even close to unquestionable smashes such as True Blood and Game of Thrones.

Hastings' use of HBO as the foil for his Netflix propaganda will blow up in his face in due time. If he released viewing data, it would just happen a heck of a lot sooner. That would merely mean less time for Netflix executives to load up on $10 million beachfront property and hyper-lucrative employee stock options.

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

Rocco Pendola is a columnist and TheStreet's Director of Social Media. He lives in Santa Monica.

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