今年一月，我在《电视究竟怎么了？》（"What the hell is going on with TV?"）一文中写到了网络电视。所谓网络电视是指电视会成为类似电脑的操作系统，届时我们既可以在平板电脑上，也可以在电视银屏上收看我们喜欢的节目。现在网络电视的时代终于来了。新的商业模式将会使网络电视的概念变成现实。今年网飞公司备受关注，其订户已达2，300万（其中许多用户选择了网络流媒体影视作为“红信封”影碟租赁的补充）。与此同时，也有许多竞争者都希望取代网飞的领先位置，其中既有付费电视提供商，也有名不见经传的初创公司。
网飞要想保持领先地位，就要使自己的服务与众不同，尤其是其他的网络视频服务也开始流行起来。在线电视网站Hulu.com就是一例，Hulu.com是由新闻集团（News Corp）、迪士尼公司（Walt Disney）、美国国家广播环球公司（NBC Universal）的母公司康卡斯特（Comcast）与普罗维登斯资本（Providence Equity）这四家公司合资建立的。Hulu去年秋天推出了一项订阅服务，用户可在网络上免费观看部分节目。但如果用户按月缴纳一定费用，则还可观看更多的节目，而且还可以在越来越多类似iPad和智能手机的设备上观看节目。不过据报道，由于Hulu的几家母公司对Hulu未来的商业模式存在分歧，因此Hulu目前正谋求出售，目前这家网站前途未卜。
对于网飞来说，更大的威胁来自付费电视提供商。这些付费电视提供商急需保住并扩大现有的付费有线电视用户群，因此诸如康卡斯特和时代华纳（《财富》杂志发行商的时代集团的母公司）等公司已经通过“电视无所不在”（TV Everywhere）等行动，将数字流媒体服务纳入他们的付费服务体系中。 例如注册成为康卡斯特的付费用户后，观众可以同时登录XfinityTV.com，通过笔记本电脑、平脑电脑或智能手机等设备观看大量节目。
归根结底，谁能够提供人们最想看的节目，人们就会追捧谁。因此网飞要想让用户成为回头客，就必须努力维护并打造自己的影视资料库。网飞与一些大型娱乐公司都签订了合作合同，但由于网飞的用户群增长迅猛，因此等到合同续订时，合同条款可能会发生显著的变化。最近索尼（Sony）出品的《社交网络》（The Social Network ）和《特工绍特》（Salt ）等电影就从网飞的即时流媒体服务中消失了，原因是网飞违反了与Starz电视网签订的合同（Starz公司拥有索尼电影的在线销售权），在网飞上观看这些电影的人数超过了合同规定的数量。哈斯廷斯曾公开表示，网飞哪怕支付超过2亿美元来与Starz续约，也“没有什么好奇怪的”——这个金额要比网飞目前预计支付的金额高出6倍多。
Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings made a strategically brilliant move for the business Friday when he announced plans to join Facebook's board of directors. Since it was founded in 1997, Netflix (NFLX) has risen from a start-up that took down Blockbuster with its red-enveloped videos by mail to the dominant movie streaming site on the web, disrupting the entire $85 billion home entertainment industry and prompting Fortune to name Hastings business person of the year for 2010. (See: Reed Hastings: Leader of the Pack)
But competition is heating up for the future of your living room. As Netflix looks to keep its lead, it could gain a significant competitive advantage by nursing a deeper relationship with the world's dominant social network.
As I wrote in January ("What the hell is going on with TV?"), web TV—the idea the largest screens in our homes will become operating systems like those that power our computers and we'll watch our favorite shows on tablets as well as the big screen—is finally coming. New business models will make this happen. Netflix has grabbed a huge share of attention this year with more than 23 million subscribers (many of whom opt for streaming movies on the web in addition to the red envelopes), but competitors from the pay TV providers to tiny upstarts are trying to displace it.
To stay ahead, Netflix will have to differentiate even as other web video services gain popularity. Online TV site Hulu.com, a joint venture run by News Corp.(NWS), Walt Disney (DIS), NBC Universal parent Comcast (CMCSA) and Providence Equity, launched a subscription service last fall. Viewers can watch some shows for free on the web, but for a monthly fee, they can watch even more shows on and do so on an expanding list of devices like iPads and smartphones. Recently, Hulu has reportedly put itself up for sale as the large media companies that own it clash over how its business should work, and its not clear what the future holds for the site.
Pay TV providers pose the larger threat to Netflix. Anxious to keep and grow the subscribers who pay monthly fees for bundles of channels delivered to their homes, companies like Comcast and Time Warner (TWX) (parent company to Fortune publisher Time Inc.) are including digital streaming options with their pay services though the "TV Everywhere" initiatives. Sign up for Comcast, for example, and you can log in to XfinityTV.com to view much of the programming over the web on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
Ultimately, viewers will flock to the service that gives them the shows and movies they most want to see. Hastings will have to work hard to maintain and build the Netflix library of films in order to keep viewers coming back. Because Netflix's user growth has come fast, it has signed contracts with large entertainment companies in which the terms are likely to shift dramatically as they come up for renewal. Recently Sony (SNE) titles including a batch of high-profile pictures like The Social Network and Salt disappeared from the Netflix instant streaming service after a contract struck between Netflix and Starz, which owned the online rights to Sony movies, was violated--reportedly more people than allowed under contract had viewed the films. Hastings has said publicly that it "wouldn't be shocking" if Netflix paid more than $200 million per year to renew its deal with Starz, an amount more than six times what it is estimated to pay now.
So far, Netflix has succeeded by continuing to reinvent itself to stay ahead of competitors. However, social is one area it has yet to master. While the company has a sophisticated recommendation engine for suggesting films to viewers, it offers few tools like share buttons to help viewers share titles with each other on popular social networks, for example.
Enter Facebook. With more than 700 million people globally now maintaining accounts, the social network could have a big impact on how viewers find, share and watch movies and shows in the future. Already, last March, Warner Bros. launched an application that let users rent and watch movies directly on Facebook. By joining the company's board, Hastings could open the door for a deeper integration between the companies.
Could Netflix begin distributing programming directly over Facebook? Stay tuned.