OTT, Netflix get starring role, as anti-heroes, at UBS investor conference

Jim O'NeilCBS chief executive Les Moonves has been nothing if not consistent about his lukewarm support for online video initiatives, especially those that he sees as undervaluing the network's content.

So, it should come as no surprise that he was adamant yesterday, during his keynote address at a UBS investor conference in New York, that the company would continue to block its content from being used on Google TV, at least until he saw some cash. Moonves, in essence, said that if you use CBS content to make money, be prepared to pay a fee for retransmission.

"Google TV is very interesting," Moonves said. "I'm not sure what it is. I'm not sure what it will do to our business. I know (Google CEO Eric) Schmidt thinks we have our heads in the sand, but I beg to differ."

Moonves also had one of the best lines at the conference when he talked about Netflix and it's role in OTT delivery: "Some CEOs think Netflix is the anti-Christ," he said. "Others embrace it as the Second Coming. We're somewhere in the middle. Caution is not a bad thing here."

Over-the-top competition and Netflix in particular, or collaboration in some cases, has been a recurring theme at the conference.

Dallas Mavericks owner and HDNet founder and CEO Mark Cuban said cord cutting ultimately will disappear and predicted the demise of Netflix, as pay-TV operators lock up deeper content rights and expand their own Web offerings to compete for the over-the-top market.

Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei (who, tidbit of the day, earned a whopping $87.1 million before taxes last year, says The Wall Street Journal) said the over-the-top threat was just another hurdle for the pay-TV industry to overcome; something the industry has dealt with before.

"This is just one more transition," Maffei said. He also said the company's licensing deal with Netflix for streaming content from its Starz movie platform "worked out pretty well for Netflix," which bought the rights to its movies for $30 million. The deal expires in 10 months and analysts say this time it could cost Netflix $250 million.

Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes, a major evangelist for the TV Everywhere initiative, also addressed Netfix, which with a $10 billion market cap is, as the New York Post points out, bigger than any of the Hollywood studios it's negotiating with.

Bewkes said Netflix is in for a comeuppance when it has to compete for content at a higher price. Its business model, he said, at its current $7.99 price is "not sustainable." Time Warner's HBO, he said, is in the process of testing OTT delivery with its HBO GO product being offered through several cable companies, like Comcast. But, he said, it might actually, after 38 years tied to cable, try an a la carte route of its own. HBO anticipates losing some 1.5 million subscribers in 2010.

Comcast Cable President Neil Smit, meanwhile, joined ESPN in saying his company had, so far, "seen no evidence of over the top."

"That being said, we don't have our heads in the sand," he said. "We can, and will, compete there."

ESPN, meanwhile, for it's part, certainly does seem to have its head in the sand. The Disney subsidiary released a new report based on Nielsen numbers that it said revealed cord cutting was a "very minor" problem.

"We knew from other sources that cord cutting was a very minor behavior, but we now have the ability to quantify this group and monitor it in the future," said Glenn Enoch, vice president of Integrated Media Research, ESPN.

Smit stuck with Comcast's company line that said cord cutting was the result of a weak economy. But he said the MSO was looking at OTT delivery as something it could do better than the competition.

"Online video we view as complimentary," he said. "We think it's a convenient way for customers to get information, to get their content. We're playing in that space. We have great long term relationships with our content providers," as well as an army of engineers who can develop and work in the space.

"If people want to access their content online, that's fine with us," Smit said. "That's why we have Xfinity." He said Comcast was focusing on going across multiple platforms and pointed out that its iPad app had some 350,000 downloads so far, placing it among the iPad's Top 10 free apps.

Smit acknowledged that programming rate increases were going to exceed the company's revenue growth for a while. And, he drew a laugh from much of the audience when he said Comcast didn't expect to pay more for streaming content to devices like the iPad.

"It's just another additional outlet," he said to titters in the crowd.

I'll bet Les Moonves wasn't laughing. -Jim