Nine and Fairfax have unveiled their defence against Netflix, and his name is Stan.
The launch of the Netflix-style streaming product comes as the American behemoth contemplates a launch Down Under, despite an approximated 200,000 Australians already subscribing to the TV library by disguising their location (using VPNs) to circumvent geo-restrictions on accessing content.
So will the launch of Stan, owned by joint-venture StreamCo, stymie Netflix’s Australian growth, and, more importantly, should you subscribe? And will it be worth giving up your Netflix subscription?
Competitive tension makes for good news copy, but it doesn’t necessarily shine much light on the situation here, says TV commentator Steve Molk, of MolksTVTalk.com. “Will people switch over from their VPN-enabled Netflix account to Stan? Probably not. But they might add on a Stan account. Given it’ll be around $10 a month, it’s not an unbearable price-point. I can see people signing up just for that.”
Ultimately, it’ll depend on the content being offered, and the lack of detail on this means assessing the potential success of Stan is, at the moment anyway, nothing but an educated guess. StreamCo has launched with two key titles — Breaking Bad and a new drama series from the same creators, Better Call Saul. Breaking Bad won’t be a driver for subscriptions, Molk says. “If you haven’t seen it already, you’re not interested, so why would you pay to see it?” he said of the recently concluded drama. “But Better Call Saul has the potential to be an amazing series.” Aside from those two, little is known about what other rights StreamCo will include in the launch.
The rights issue is the big one, and technology and telecommunications consultant Paul Wallbank isn’t so sure the launch of a new streaming platforms goes any way to resolving it. “You talk to digital TV people, and rights are the bane of their life,” he said. “They’re so complex and convoluted. And as long as we have a system that allows Foxtel and the free-to-air stations to lock down content coming out of America, we’ll continue to have this problem.”
Another issue for Stan is that Australians who care deeply about having access to shows — the die-hard fans of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones — have, in many cases, already figured out how to sign up to US-based Netflix. Once you add the cost of a VPN service, they are currently paying more to watch things quickly on Netflix than they would be paying if they subscribed to Stan. So they could switch for a cheaper offering — if Stan can offer what Netflix does. But the rights issue is complicated. It’s possible Stan will have the Australian streaming rights to more shows than, say, Australian Netflix (when it launches), but its true competition is the American Netflix, which is well-established and whose rights negotiations are conducted entirely separately. Netflix is also boosted, in Australia and America, by a range of shows produced in-house like BoJack Horseman, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards.
But Netflix’s attraction isn’t principally its new shows but rather its library of children’s shows, documentaries and movies. They’re the reason people keep paying month after month. As TV commentator Dan Barrett points out in The Guardian, Netflix is not Spotify for shows. It doesn’t have everything its audience could possibly want to watch, just what it can manage to get the rights to. Netflix, Barrett wrote, is “a rotating library that provides all of the casual viewing needs a subscriber desires … but for viewers wanting a specific show or movie they can be left wanting”.
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Maybe Stan isn’t so much a competitor to Netflix, and it’s wrong to see it like that. Both will have a different range of content, and viewers who like to stream may well figure $2.50 a week isn’t much to pay for access to another library of TV shows and movies. But if Stan and Netflix — and services like Foxtel’s play-on-demand platform Presto, home-grown video-on-demand minnow Quickflix and, of course, the ABC’s iView — further normalise streaming, particularly of their back-catalogue, they’ll further eat away at the reasons people turn on their TVs. That leaves TV stations further reliant on expensive programming such as sports, reality television and first-run programs to get the ratings.