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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Encyclopedia Netflixia: Translating Warner Media’s Robert Greenblatt

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

So the other day Robert Greenblatt, the new chairman of Entertainment at Warner Media, where he’s in charge of HBO, TNT, TBS, truTV, and the forthcoming Warner Media streaming service, said something to NBC’s Dylan Byers about Netflix that got people tittering: “Netflix doesn’t have a brand,” he said. “It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s a great business model when you’re trying to reach as many people on the planet as you can.”

In the aftermath I’ve seen lots of folks stepping up to defend Encyclopedia Britannica(!) and Netflix. Maybe Greenblatt’s statement isn’t the most artfully worded. If you want to point and laugh, Nelson style, you can. Netflix is wildly successful… it’s not just a brand, it’s a powerful cultural force, the kind that can fill thrift stores after the launch of a show about de-cluttering, when it’s not winning multiple Academy Awards.

But I think I understand what Greenblatt is getting at. In fact, I wrote something similar earlier this week at Macworld:

Apple’s not Netflix and it isn’t going to be. There’s nothing wrong with Apple’s executives having a clear vision about what the vibe of their content should be. For Apple’s video service to be successful, it should be a set of programs that fit a particular worldview. The best networks have an identity and their programmers know exactly what it is.

Netflix tries to be everything to everybody, and spends tens of billions of dollars to do that. So far, as I can tell, Apple’s not going that direction. It needs to choose. Apple’s video service will benefit from a clear brand identity, and if that brand identity is bright, optimistic, and broadly appealing, with standards more like broadcast TV than premium cable, that won’t preclude it from finding an audience.

In other words, unless you spend tens of billions of dollars on original content over the course of a decade—and other than Netflix, the only other player even close to that level right now is Amazon—you can’t be Netflix. Netflix’s target audience is everyone. It casts the widest possible net. It is launching every kind of show and movie, by the dozen, every single week of the year.

Smaller players just entering the streaming market are not going to be capable of out-Netflixing Netflix for years, if ever. Instead, they all need to pick their spots carefully, and spend their money wisely. New streaming services must define who they are, what kind of content they’re going to offer, and market themselves to a specific potential audience.

Greenblatt doesn’t seem to be insulting Netflix to me. He’s praising, or at least acknowledging, that Netflix is playing a different game—and he’s planting seeds now to fend off any comparisons between his streaming service and Netflix later. Nobody’s going to be matching Netflix—not Warner Media, not Apple, not even Disney—for years to come. They will all lose a comparison to Netflix. The only winning move is not to play.

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