Netflix Gets Tongue-Tied

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As every great comic will tell you, the delivery matters a whole lot more than the actual joke. Robin Williams can make you laugh at a trite knock-knock joke; Carrot Top could suck the funny bone out of the best punch line.

Likewise, the crisis of consumer confidence around Netflix (NAS: NFLX) could have been so different. If management had played its cards right, there mightn't have been a crisis at all.

And so it goes with the Netflix Summer of 2011. A drastic change of service plans was panned as a 60% sticker shock. The wholesale separation of DVD and streaming services promised to remove all traces of Netflix's one-stop-shop convenience. Then the company walked away from its Liberty Starz (NAS: LSTZA) content deal, again amid a hail of jeers and rotten fruit. Even the apology for Qwikster struck the wrong chord.

This story could have been so very different.

Over the weekend, Bloomberg prodded Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey to present these matters the way they should have been explained to begin with.

  • On the price changes: "This was a price increase for 12 million members and a non-event for 12 million who wanted streaming only. We should have said $2 a month for unlimited DVDs just wasn't covering it." Sounds a bit fairer than boosting plan prices by up to 60% for no good reason, no?
  • On the Starz breakup: "We did not say clearly that we didn't think the price they were asking is the price we should pay." Put another way, Starz was asking too rich a price and Netflix wouldn't have it. Don't Netflix critics love to hammer the company for signing expensive deals?

Swasey didn't redress the Qwikster debacle in this interview. I don't think there is a positive spin to put on that one with a straight face. In the end, Netflix plans to make up for all these errors of tactics and/or communication by improving its streaming content library. "We're going to show customers the value of the service, and reinforce it's still the same service you've loved," Swasey said.

A recent spate of content deals with DreamWorks Animation SKG (NAS: DWA) , CBS (NYS: CBS) , and Time Warner (NYS: TWX) shows that the company is willing to spend serious money to make it happen. These are exactly the kind of direct studio deals that Netflix needs for the long haul.

If Netflix had presented this summer's changes as a series of benign and rather minor inconveniences, the share price would have been much closer to the old $300 level than today's $100-and-change. So perhaps a million Netflix subscribers jumped ship to Coinstar's (NAS: CSTR) Redbox, Blockbuster services under the wing of Dish Network (NAS: DISH) , and other alternatives. Fellow Fool Rick Munarriz sees most of these expatriates returning to Netflix when the minuscule magnitude of the summer's moves actually dawns on the defectors.

We'll see about that. In the meantime, Netflix looks like a value stock and I hope that CEO Reed Hastings brings Swasey along for next week's earnings call. The steady stream of bad communications needs to end.

Keep a close eye on Netflix so you're ready the next time management makes a brilliant or bone-headed move. Just click here to add Netflix to your watchlist, and you're all set.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Netflix but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Netflix and DreamWorks Animation SKG. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio, follow him on Twitter or Google+, or peruse our Foolish disclosure policy.

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