WHEN READING ABOUT THE MEDIA BUSINESS these days, there are some things you know without being told. You can be pretty sure that when a bunch of conglomerates come together to create something they call TV Everywhere, it will end up delivering TV nowhere. Or that when the head of a mighty corporation says, of a pint-size digital competitor, “It’s a little bit like, is the Albanian army going to take over the world?”—the answer is going to surprise him.
That was Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Time Warner’s CEO, famously dismissing the threat of Netflix in 2010. Ten years before, Time Warner had been the biggest media conglomerate of them all. But having sold itself to AOL in 2000 in a near-disastrous attempt to achieve digital competence, it went on to shed its cable-system subsidiary, its music colossus, its magazine empire and AOL itself before Mr. Bewkes, in 2018, sold what was left to AT&T for $85.4 billion. This month, AT&T offloaded WarnerMedia to Discovery Inc. for barely half that amount.
The men who ran these conglomerates were a hubristic lot, chasing dominance in an analog industry while remaining utterly clueless about the coming digital tsunami. It was only a matter of file size: Music labels were already being gutted by the early aughts, but movie studios and television networks, whose output requires vastly more bandwidth, had another decade to contemplate the inevitable—not that it did them much good.
BINGE TIMES: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix By Dade Hayes and Dawn Chmielewski William Morrow
What happened when they met the Albanian army is the subject of Dade Hayes and Dawn Chmielewski’s Binge Times: Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion-Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix. Mr. Hayes is the business editor at Deadline; Ms. Chmielewski is an entertainment-business correspondent for Reuters.
The story begins in 1997, when a Silicon Valley computer scientist named Reed Hastings and a marketing manager named Marc Randolph launched a movie-rental company. Initially, customers would make their selections online and receive DVDs by mail. But when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Netflix was in trouble. As Mr. Randolph reported in his 2019 memoir That Will Never Work, he and Mr. Hastings were prepared to sell Netflix to Blockbuster—the Viacom subsidiary that dominated the U.S. movie-rental business at the time—for $50 million. That deal didn’t happen. A decade later, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy.
At first, media executives saw Netflix as just another revenue stream, a distribution outlet along the lines of in-flight movies and pay-per-view. But after Netflix began offering a streaming option in 2007, and especially after it started commissioning original programming in 2013, they began to view it as a competitor. What they failed to see was that streaming changed the game completely: Suddenly “appointment TV” was a relic.
Binge Times has its moments, as when the authors describe John Stankey, the AT&T lifer who engineered the Time Warner purchase and is now AT&T’s chief executive. Stiff as a board in a business defined by schmooze, Mr. Stankey, the authors note, “hardly endeared himself to the creative community by casually referring to the films and TV shows they made as ‘tonnage.’”
Then there was film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg’s bungled attempt to capitalize on millennials’ perceived appetite for super-short-form entertainment. Known as Quibi (short for “quick bites”) and funded to the tune of $1.75 billion, Mr. Katzenberg’s startup offered “snackable content” in the form of high-production-value videos. Viewable only on cellphones, lacking the spontaneity and free-spiritedness of TikTok and plainly created by people with no feel for the target audience, Quibi became what the authors describe as “the app equivalent of New Coke: a vigorously marketed product that no one wanted.” But at least Mr. Katzenberg was trying something new. Until declining cable and satellite subscriptions and competition from Netflix forced their hand, most of the media executives you meet here were too busy trying to protect expiring business models to think about the future.
The story of Netflix barging into Hollywood’s china shop is one that cries out for a big, sweeping treatment that leverages the clash of outsize personalities. Unfortunately, Binge Times lurches from one company to another and one time period to another in a way that’s confusing, disjointed and strangely inert. When we do see people interacting with one another, it’s often to watch them scarf down canapés at a party.
And while the book can be good at pointing out less-than-obvious motivations—the role of executive bonuses in driving bad business decisions, for example—the authors show some peculiar lapses in judgment. Yes, the media moguls were wrong to set up executive fiefdoms that pitted one arm of the company against another, and Time Warner is a textbook example. But what are we to conclude when the example on offer is a lukewarm review of a Harry Potter movie from Warner Bros. that ran in Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly magazine? That the job of a magazine is to tout its corporate sibling’s films? Even at their worst, the people who ran Time Warner knew better than that.
Yet earlier this week, when Netflix stock dropped 35% in a single day on news that the service was losing subscribers, the schadenfreude was on full display in some quarters of Hollywood. The celebrants, many of whom had recently launched their own streaming operations, might have done better to wonder what a stumble by the market leader portends for their own services, most of them lackluster by comparison. Maybe people won’t want to pay for a host of me-too offerings from conglomerates they can’t even keep track of? It’s a scary thought—almost as scary as having to fend off an outfit from Silicon Valley that doesn’t do business the way you’ve come to expect. ◼︎