Who Will Buy Netflix?

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Can you buy me now?

Rumors of Verizon (NYS: VZ) eyeing an acquisition of Netflix (NAS: NFLX) were enough to send the beleaguered video buffet operator 6% higher on an otherwise dreary market day yesterday, but let's not run out to see what's on the bridal registry just yet.

Is this the same Verizon that was rumored to be making a play for Redbox parent Coinstar (NAS: CSTR) last week?

It's easy to see why Verizon is being attached to this kind of chatter. The telco giant is reportedly working on a streaming video service. Why start from scratch -- an approach that finds it with just 4 million FiOS broadband television subscribers after a few years of aggressive deployment -- when it can slide right into Netflix's more than 20 million global streaming subscribers?

Instead of competing against Netflix as one of the many big names with tiny audiences, Verizon can corner the market as a debutante.

Verizon won't succeed in this space on its own. It's not just about marketing to its 107.7 million wireless connections. We've seen how well that has worked out for FiOS, and then we get to the tens of thousands of digital titles that need to be corralled in licensing rights for an unlimited digital streaming service to stand a chance.

Coinstar would be a much cheaper alternative, but it would really be just gaining a recognized video brand saddled with looming bricks-and-mortar liabilities as optical discs fade in relevance. DISH Network (NAS: DISH) did this -- and a lot cheaper since it snagged Blockbuster in bankruptcy.

If Verizon's going to do this, it may as well do it right.

Gentleman callers on the porch
If Verizon is the only buyer -- and if Netflix is a desperate seller -- things will get boring in a hurry. So let's really rattle the cage, call in the romance novelists, and hand Netflix a dance card for potential suitors to stamp.

After all, it's not just Verizon that's been a rumored buyer of Netflix in the past. Let's dig up some old flames.

  • Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) has been tied to Netflix for years. In fact, shares of Netflix also rose exactly 6% on June 6, 2007, when the rumor mills were carving AMZN and NFLX inside a heart. That tree's bark proved to be worse than its bite. Netflix appears to have scared Amazon away from a stateside DVD rental service when it showed aggressive pricing mettle before that, and now the mere girth of Netflix is making it hard for the leading online retailer to make its Amazon Prime streaming smorgasbord a force in this realm -- even as it gives it away to millions of existing Prime members. Amazon will always be the most logical buyer for Netflix, and Netflix's overseas push over the past year makes it even more appetizing.
  • Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) is another popular suitor. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings sits on the Microsoft board, and we learned how Xbox gamers are also real video junkies when Netflix streaming was introduced three years ago on Xbox consoles. Microsoft's Xbox Live and Netflix have grown in popularity, but they now see other people. Buying Netflix would not only make Microsoft a force in streaming video, but it raises the tantalizing possibility of making portable streaming exclusive to Xbox gamers, Windows Phone users, and eventually Windows 8 tablet buyers. The move would alienate many Netflix customers, but it would dramatically improve Microsoft's iffy status in smartphones and tablets.
  • AT&T (NYS: T) also makes sense, if only in making sure that Verizon doesn't get Netflix. The T-Mobile deal is dead, but regulators won't flinch at this deal. Like Verizon, AT&T has a large base of smartphone customers. I can't see Netflix smartphone streaming becoming exclusive to a single carrier, but it's certainly possible that a telco buyer can make an enhanced platform available only to its wireless customers. AT&T also has a small but growing broadband television service in U-verse that lacks Netflix's reach with couch potatoes.   

Shutting down the rumor mill
The one thing working against Netflix as a buyout candidate right now is its low share price.

You didn't misread that.

If a company would have moved to buy Netflix at $300 this summer when its stock was peaking, investors would probably cheer the move. Netflix was a market darling. Buying Netflix at $100 right now -- when it's as popular as a DVD copy of Gigli -- would probably send the acquiring company's stock lower.

However, potential buyers aren't as emotional as the individuals burying Netflix these days. They realize that Netflix has a seemingly insurmountable lead in this niche and that Netflix's stock will begin to turn higher once the subscriber defections stabilize.

You know, that could very well be happening now. The "I'm canceling Netflix" fervor has subsided, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Netflix begin to sign up more new accounts than those bolting by next quarter.

In other words, as improbable as a Verizon buyout -- or any acquisition -- may seem right now, we're actually in a rare window where the price may be right for the buyer, Netflix may be a willing seller, and investors of the acquirer will be gradually forgiving as Netflix prospects improve heading toward a deal closing date.

Can you hear me now, Verizon? Can you buy me now? Dismissing the chatter is the right approach, but this really is a window that isn't going to be open forever. 

If you want to follow this saga, track the latest news by addingNetflixto My Watchlist.

At the time this article was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Coinstar, Netflix, Microsoft, and Amazon.com; and creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a Netflix subscriber and shareholder since 2002. He does not own shares in any of the other stocks in this story. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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