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亚马逊能成功,Netflix也一定会成功

Joe Nocera 2017年08月18日

无论电视的进化带来什么样的改变,Netflix都将和HBO、亚马逊等几家公司一起成为胜利者。

 

几年前,亚马逊还没有成为互联网上的重量级选手时,许多华尔街分析师和记者都对它报以极度怀疑的态度。当时我为《财富》杂志工作,我们也不怎么看好它。

理由很充分。亚马逊最初的那些产品——书籍、电影和视频的收入正在下滑。跟亚马逊做生意的几家公司都以关门歇业收场。甚至是在互联网泡沫破裂以后,按传统指标来看亚马逊的估值仍然过高。最主要的是,由于创始人兼首席执行官杰夫·贝佐斯是如此执着于把每一分闲置资金都重新用于公司运营,亚马逊手里一点儿钱也没有。2001年,在一篇特别尖锐的文章中,我们下结论说亚马逊“永远也不会成为高速增长、大笔盈利而且超级有效率的互联网传奇公司。”哎。

让我想起这些的是新一期《巴伦周刊》的封面文章。它谈论的是Netflix,而且《巴伦周刊》对这家公司的态度是,嗯,极度怀疑。文章提要这样说:“随着迪士尼离它而去,亚马逊高歌猛进,以及Facebook在视频领域大举扩张,烧钱的Netflix处于被动地位,其股价可能下跌50%。”

和《财富》对亚马逊的分析一样,《巴伦周刊》在剖析数据之后得出了结论。文章的作者杰克·霍夫认为,Netflix今年要烧掉20-25亿美元资金,而且它还要在债券被评为垃圾级的情况下为支出筹集资金。171美元的股价非常高,尽管这家公司有了些许利润。今年Netflix用于获得授权和制作内容的支出将高达60亿美元左右(与之相比,HBO今年在内容上将花费约20亿美元)。尽管Netflix目前的全球用户数量已经超过1亿,但收视费并不能弥补它的所有成本,这就带来一个问题:如果它大幅提价会出现什么样的局面?用户会因此停止收看Netflix的节目吗?这样的话它的股价就可能下跌,从而使Netflix更难进行它赖以生存的债务融资。

同时,华特迪士尼最近宣布,明年以后将把目前授权给Netflix的影视作品转移到自己的流媒体业务中,其中包括《海洋奇缘》和《海底总动员2》这样的热门电影。亚马逊继续做大自己的流媒体业务,目前的内容预算在45亿美元上下。Facebook则推出了新的视频服务。这些都是令人畏惧的竞争对手,而且收入都是Netflix的好多倍。

最后,霍夫提醒《巴伦周刊》的读者说,就Netflix引起关注的内容而言,其中大多数影视作品都来自其他内容提供商的授权。Netflix让其中很多公司感到害怕,它们希望自己从未授权给Netflix,这样就不会“赋予它能力”。这些内容提供商可能效仿迪士尼,做出不再为Netflix提供内容的决定(探索传播等公司已经这样做了)。或者,如果Netflix无法争取到新用户,而且也不能再如此随意地花钱,内容就有可能干脆变成过于昂贵之物。

霍夫写道:“急迫的投资者会关心用户增速是否放慢甚至陷入停滞。增长靠的是内容,而对自身没多少内容的公司来说,内容就需要资金。Netflix的风险在于,如果它的购买力减弱,今后几年就有可能和吸引人的内容绝缘。”因此,霍夫认为Netflix的股价可能会下跌50%。

我得说,《巴伦周刊》这篇文章中能被轻易驳倒的东西不多。霍夫罗列的情况绝对都有可能,而且有充分理由相信一些华尔街最聪明的投资者正在做空Netflix。但我觉得实际情况将证明这些怀疑都是错的,就像此前人们怀疑亚马逊那样。

亚马逊的批评者忽略的关键因素是贝佐斯的能力和决心。虽然还不清楚亚马逊最终的经营模式会是什么样,也许就连贝佐斯也说不清,但我们现在都看到了,贝佐斯带来的动力、他的独创性和对消费者的明确关注帮助亚马逊度过了各种各样的难关,并最终成为其他零售商都惧怕的零售巨头,而且今年的收入有望接近1700亿美元。怀疑者把注意力集中在亚马逊的资产负债表上,这让他们忽略了贝佐斯赋予亚马逊的文化属性,而正是这样的文化属性让亚马逊变得不可阻挡。

Netflix首席执行官里德·黑斯廷斯有着类似于贝佐斯的专注力。56岁的黑斯廷斯在20年前跟别人一起创立了Netflix,随后一直经营至今。刚刚起步时,通过邮件把DVD寄给用户的Netflix就战胜了Blockbuster,一个比自己大得多的竞争对手。2007年,就在Netflix的DVD业务很赚钱时,黑斯廷斯推出了流媒体服务,这有可能夺走DVD业务的利润。虽然最初只有电影,但黑斯廷斯和公司二号人物泰德·萨兰多斯意识到播放时长一小时的电视剧才是真正的机会所在,这样做实际上让网络和制作方都能播出这些电视剧,就像以前双双播出半小时长的喜剧那样。

虽然那些把影视作品授权给Netflix的公司通过所谓的“流媒体视频点播”权获得了高额收入,但其中许多公司渐渐对Netflix的实力感到怨恨,而且将它视为有线电视的威胁,而有线电视仍是这些公司最大的利润来源。为了确保自己的命运依然掌握在自己手里,Netflix开始自行制作内容,比如2013年2月播出第一季的《纸牌屋》和五个月后上线的《女子监狱》。换句话说,每次遇上岔道,黑斯廷斯都选择了正确的路线,尽管那是风险最高的做法。

2015年秋,我有幸到Netflix一窥究竟。当时Netflix正准备进行另一场豪赌:把业务扩展到除中国以外的世界其他地区。虽然已经进入了60个国家和地区,但每个地方的业务都各自为营,影视作品通常都用当地语言播出,而且有大量营销噱头。这次两种情况都会变得非常少,至少一开始是这样。当时很多人都认为这样的想法是误入歧途,将带来亏损和混乱。而今,也就是不到两年后,Netflix已经拥有5600万国际用户,超过了5300万的国内用户数量。

我总觉得无论电视的进化带来什么样的改变,Netflix都将和HBO、亚马逊等几家公司一起成为胜利者。我这样说不仅仅是因为黑斯廷斯以及Netflix已经取得的成绩。

同时也是出于我在Netflix的所见所闻。黑斯廷斯已经建立了一种卓越文化,它鼓励“文明”分歧,而内部拉帮结派是遭解雇的最“保险”途径。它带有安迪·格鲁夫很久以前为英特尔注入的良性偏执——总是左右扫视,评估局势和竞争状况。迪士尼宣布终止合作几天后,Netflix就发起反击,跟制作人珊达·莱梅斯签约,后者曾为迪士尼旗下的ABC打造了电视剧《实习医生格蕾》和《丑闻》。最后,黑斯廷斯也许是我见过的最聪明的CEO。

要点在于,我看到的东西让我相信Netflix会成为赢家,但这些东西无法在资产负债表或者损益表里找到。《巴伦周刊》指出的所有潜在问题确实都是事实。但有时候,对有些公司来说数字并不能代表一切。我相信Netflix就是其中之一。

就像多年以前的亚马逊一样。(财富中文网)

本专栏文章并不代表编辑团队或彭博及其所有者的观点。

译者:Charlie

 

Years ago, before Amazon had become the internet’s 800-pound gorilla, there were many Wall Street analysts and journalists who viewed the company with extreme skepticism. I worked for Fortune magazine at the time, and we were among the doubters.

Our rationale was sound. Amazon's earliest product categories—books, movies and videos—were seeing a decline in revenue. It cut deals with a handful of companies that wound up going out of business. Even after the dot-com bust, its stock was overvalued by traditional measures. And most telling of all, because founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos was so insistent on plowing every spare penny back into the business, the company made no money. In one particularly biting 2001 story, we concluded that Amazon “will never be the high-growth, wildly profitable, super-efficient company of Internet lore.” Ouch.

What brings this to mind is the cover story in the new issue of Barron’s. The subject is Netflix, a company that Barron’s views with, well, extreme skepticism. The headline reads: “Cash-burning Netflix is vulnerable as Disney shies away, Amazon looms, and Facebook muscles into video. Shares could fall 50%.”

Like Fortune’s analysis of Amazon, Barron’s came to its conclusions after a forensic examination of its numbers. The author, Jack Hough, noted that Netflix’s cash burn this year would be between $2 billion and $2.5 billion, and that it is financing its spending “with junk-rated debt.” At $171 a share, its stock price is very high, even though its profits are minimal. It is spending an enormous sum this year—$6 billion or so—licensing and creating content. (By comparison, HBO will spend about $2 billion this year on content.) Although Netflix now has over 100 million subscribers worldwide, its subscriptions don’t cover all of its costs, which raises the question of what will happen if the company ever raises its prices significantly. Would that cause subscribers to abandon the service, which would cause the stock to drop, which would make it harder to get the debt-financing it relies on?

Meanwhile, The Walt Disney Co. recently announced that it would move the movies and TV shows it currently licenses to Netflix to its own streaming service after next year, movies that include such hits as Moana and Finding Dory. Amazon continues to ramp up its own streaming service; its content budget is now in the range of $4.5 billion. And Facebook is playing around with a new video service. These are all fearsome competitors, with geometrically more revenue than Netflix.

Finally, Hough reminded Barron’s readers that, for all the attention Netflix’s own content gets, most of the movies and TV shows it streams are licensed from other content providers. Other companies, many of which fear Netflix and wish they had never “enabled” the company by licensing its shows, could follow Disney’s lead and decide to stop making content available to Netflix. (Some, like Discovery Communications Inc., already have.) Or content could simply become too expensive if Netflix stops gaining new subscribers and can no longer spend so freely.

“Investors will care in a hurry if membership gains slow or stall,” Hough wrote. “Growth depends on content, and for companies that don’t own much of it, content requires cash. Netflix runs the risk of getting shut out of attractive content in coming years if its buying power wanes.” Hence his view that the stock could drop 50 percent.

I have to say, there is not much in the Barron’s story that you can easily refute. The scenarios Hough lays out are definite possibilities; there is good reason some of the smartest investors on Wall Street are short Netflix’s stock. Nonetheless, I think the skeptics are going to turn out to be wrong, just as they were with Amazon.

The key factor that the critics overlooked with Amazon was the skill and determination of Bezos. Though it wasn’t yet clear—perhaps not even to Bezos—what Amazon’s ultimate business model was going to be, we know now that his drive, his ingenuity and his clear-eyed focus on customers saw Amazon through various rough patches until the company emerged as the retailer every other retailer fears, on pace to generate nearly $170 billion in revenue this year. The skeptics’ focus on Amazon’s balance sheet caused them to overlook the cultural attributes that Bezos instilled in Amazon that made it unstoppable.

In Reed Hastings, Netflix has a similarly focused CEO. Hastings, 56, has been running Netflix since he co-founded it 20 years ago. In its earliest incarnation, sending DVDs to customers through the mail, Netflix vanquished a much bigger competitor, Blockbuster. In 2007, at a time when Netflix’s DVD business was highly profitable, Hastings began the company’s streaming service, potentially cannibalizing its DVD profits. Though it streamed only movies at first, Hastings and his number two, Ted Sarandos, realized that the real opportunity lay in streaming hour-long television dramas—thus allowing the networks and studios to, in effect, syndicate hour-long shows just as they traditionally did with half-hour comedies.

Although so-called “video streaming on demand” rights generated significant revenue for the companies that licensed their shows to Netflix, many of them came to resent Netflix’s power, and see it as a threat to the cable bundle, which remained the largest source of their profits. To help ensure that it remained in control of its own destiny, Netflix began creating its own content with shows like “House of Cards,” which streamed its first season in February 2013, and “Orange is the New Black,” which followed five months later. In other words, every time Hastings reached a fork in the road, he took the right path, even if it was the riskiest.

In the fall of 2015, I got a peek inside Netflix as the company prepared for another big Hastings-inspired gamble: a plan to expand the service to the entire world (aside from China). Although Netflix was already in 60 countries, each had had its own rollout, usually with shows in the native language, and lots of marketing hoopla. This time, there would be very little of either, at least at first, and there were plenty of people who thought this was a misguided idea that would lead to losses and chaos. Yet today, less than two years later, Netflix’s international subscribers have overtaken its domestic ones, 56 million to 53 million.

I wound up thinking that no matter what happens as television evolves, Netflix will be one of the winners, along with HBO, Amazon, and a handful of others. I say that not just because of what Hastings and the company have already accomplished.

It is also because of what I saw at Netflix. Hastings has created a culture of excellence, where civil disagreement is encouraged and internal politicking is the surest way to get fired. It has the kind of healthy paranoia that Andy Grove instilled long ago at Intel—it is constantly looking over its shoulder, assessing the landscape and the competition. Days after Disney said it would end its relationship with Netflix, the company fired back by signing Shonda Rhimes, who created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” for Disney’s ABC unit. Finally, Hastings may be the smartest CEO I’ve ever met.

The point is, the things I saw that caused me to believe Netflix is going to come out a winner are not things that you can find in a balance sheet or an income statement. All the potential issues aired by Barron’s are real. But sometimes there are companies where the numbers don’t tell the full picture. Netflix, I believe, is one of those companies.

Just as Amazon was long ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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