Netflix Offers Mixed Message To Time Warner In Q4 PR Blitz

What a difference a day makes for Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX). Less than 24 hours after an executive fired a shot across Time (NYSE: TWX) Warner’s bow at the NATPE conference, founder Reed Hastings used his Q4 Q&A with investors on Wednesday to take a toke from the peace pipe.

On a call with no shortage of issues to discuss, more than a few analysts were concerned with indications made Tuesday by chief content officer Ted Sarandos that Netflix would bid against HBO to get streaming rights to Warner Bros. films beginning in 2014. It probably didn’t clarify things much that Hastings often sounded conciliatory and contentious–sometimes within the same answer.

Asked if Netflix was ready to go head to head for the movie rights, Hastings replied at one point, “It’s certainly possible that we’d compete on an exclusive basis; we’re wiling to do that if we have to. But it makes more economic sense to share windows with pay TV.”

Hastings is sort of talking out of both sides of his mouth here, saying he’s ready for a bidding war, but he’s also in a sharing mood. Later on in the call, he sought to play down any sense of a rivalry between the companies, which is pretty odd considering Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes has been quoted likening Netflix to both the Albanian army and a 200-pound chimpanzee.

“I’m not sure I agree on the negative comments aspect,” Hastings said on the call. “The press makes a living out of blowing things up.”

Uh, Reed, I didn’t see Bewkes claim anyone in the media made those quotes up.

So why the doublespeak? On the one hand, the Netflix-HBO rivalry is only going to intensify now that Netflix has blown past the 20-million subscriber mark; the service is on course to surpass HBO’s subscriber base sometime this year. But on the other hand, as Hastings pointed out, Netflix shells out $100 million a year to Warner Bros., and that sum is only going to grow.

Curiously, another pay-TV channel that has just as much at stake with Netflix didn’t come up on the call: Starz, which is looking to bend the streaming service over a barrel in its renewal of a movie deal that includes streaming rights to Disney (NYSE: DIS) and Sony (NYSE: SNE) titles. But Hastings did address Starz in a letter to shareholders issued earlier in the day, and wouldn’t you know it: Netflix knocked HBO for not being more like Starz.

“Some content owners fear that licensing to Netflix will undercut other, larger profit streams. The Starz example suggests otherwise. We have carried Starz since October 2008 and we have not licensed HBO. Over that time, Starz’ Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (MVPD) subscriber count has grown, and HBO’s has not.”

Netflix is steaming that Starz has handed over rights to its original series Spartacus while HBO refuses to do same for its treasure trove of Emmy-winning originals. As one analyst or another routinely asks on earnings calls, so why doesn’t Netflix just get into the original-programming business? Hastings said he doesn’t have the stomach for it.

“It’s not something fundamentally a tech company or a company run by a tech CEO like myself is likely to build distinct organizational competence in,” he said, sounding very much like a tech CEO.

That said, all this posturing was clearly on the undercard given a bigger fight Hastings is looking to have with Internet service providers trying to squeeze content providers like Netflix to carry its data. More to come on this tomorrow, when Hastings has pledged to release a list of which ISPs best handle Netflix.