A Quick Lesson in Antitrust: Netflix and Comcast
Every time a major corporate merger is announced, pundits predictably warn of impending doom if regulators allow it to happen. Here’s an example from Susan P. Crawford’s 2012 book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Kindle edition location 2098):
The Absence of any effective regulatory regime or oversight over the cable giant makes it unlikely that Netflix will ever be able to challenge Comcast. Comcast has a number of options that will make it extremely difficult for independently provided, directly competitive professional online video to challenge its dominance.
Now that a few years have passed and the dust has settled from the Comcast-NBC merger, how has it affected Netflix? Rather differently than Crawford feared, as any student of Schumpeter could have predicted. Here is an excerpt from last week’s cover story in The Economist, “The Tech Giant Everyone is Watching”:
This year its entertainment output will far exceed that of any TV network; its production of over 80 feature films is far larger than any Hollywood studio’s. Netflix will spend $12bn-13bn on content this year, $3bn-4bn more than last year. That extra spending alone would be enough to pay for all of HBO’s programming—or the BBC’s. … Its ascent has mirrored the decline of traditional television viewing: Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 watch half as much pay-TV today as they did in 2010.
Within a year of Crawford’s book, Netflix began producing high-quality original content, an innovation she did not foresee. Her whole project was a waste of time and effort.
The lesson here is that pundits and regulators don’t know any better than you or I how a merger will turn out. And unlike investors and entrepreneurs, they don’t have their own money at stake, so they don’t have any incentive to innovate or react to changing conditions.
Of course, another lesson is that pundits and agencies will not heed that first lesson. As the same Economist story points out, “Some suspect that Netflix harbours ambitions to monopolise tv.” So the cycle repeats itself, and likely for no good reason.
For more antitrust lessons, see Wayne Crews’ study The Antitrust Terrible 10: Why the Most Reviled “Anti-competitive” Business Practices Can Benefit Consumers in the New Economy.