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Amazon? HBO? Netflix thinks its real competitor is... sleep

That’s according to CEO Reed Hastings, who wants to talk to you about time and space and have you ever really looked at your hands? I mean — really, really looked? At your hands? Whoa.

The New Yorker TechFest 2016 Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is used to getting questions about competitors.

For a long time, people from the press and Wall Street would ask Hastings about HBO, and he would argue that Netflix wasn’t really competing with HBO, because people who get HBO also get Netflix.

Now he gets the same questions about Amazon, since Amazon has started spending aggressively on streaming video content, just like Netflix does. And Hastings has the same answer, really: There’s room for everybody!

But today, on Netflix’s Q1 earnings call, Hastings got a little more expansive, in a bong-rip-in-a-dorm-room way, if that’s still a thing. (Is that still a thing?) Here’s the answer he gave to an Amazon competition question; we join this one mid-response, right after he finished praising Amazon and Jeff Bezos:

They’re doing great programming, and they’ll continue to do that, but I’m not sure it will affect us very much. Because the market is just so vast. You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. You really — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time. And a way to see that numerically is that we’re a competitor to HBO, and yet over 10 years we’ve grown to 50 million, and they’ve continued modestly growing. They haven’t shrunk. And so if you think about it as, we’re not really affecting them, the [question] is why — and that’s because we’re like two drops of water in the ocean, of both time and spending for people. And so Amazon could do great work, and it would be very hard for it to directly affect us. It’s just — home entertainment is not a zero-sum game. And again, HBO’s success, despite our tremendous success, is a good way to illustrate that.

Some quick thoughts:

  • When I heard Hastings uncork this one, I got excited, because I’ve heard Hastings speak a lot, and I hadn’t heard that one before. Then I thought, “Reed Hastings is often very modulated. Maybe he has used that one before.”
  • He has.
  • Still, I’m not the only one who was struck by it. Here’s the official Netflix account, a couple minutes after Hastings’s remarks:
  • Hastings’s answer is most certainly true, in more than one way. You really can stay up late watching Netflix! I’ve totally done that. And, also: Many people subscribe to more than pay TV service, and many people have more than one streaming video service. (But most people only have a single streaming music service, which is a different discussion.)
  • Hastings’s answer is also intentionally obfuscating: The question wasn’t about competition among video services for customers’ time and credit cards, but competition among video services for content. If Netflix has an exclusive deal with Disney — as it does — then no other streaming service can show you Disney movies at the same time that Netflix does. And if Amazon spends a gazillion dollars on a “Top Gear” sequel — which it did — then Netflix can’t show that show to its subscribers. If you’re someone who gets both Netflix’s and Amazon’s services, that doesn’t matter to you. But if you’re Netflix or Amazon, and you have to pay for that stuff, it matters.

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