Critic's Notebook: You're Not Going to Win the Streaming Wars by Talking Trash

Bob Greenblatt's Netflix broadside would have worked a lot better if anyone knew what WarnerMedia plans to offer.
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There's never not going to be a moment in 2019 when the Streaming Wars are missing from your ear or absent from a headline. If you don't know that already, you're not paying attention. But where things are going soon is getting more fun than expected.

Little tidbits of news pop up all the time; fear bubbles over and invades a coffee meeting; people who are tired of musing on the pending streaming explosion do it anyway. Things are happening.

Bob Greenblatt was in his new job as the The Guy at WarnerMedia Who Is Above That Guy and Also That Guy, and somewhere between picking out a chair for the office he might not even have yet and, you know, helping craft a top-tier Big Six streaming service, when he told NBC News this: "Netflix doesn't have a brand. It's just a place you go to get anything — like Encyclopedia Britannica."

Now, for starters, that is just joyously snarky. It's like Greenblatt realized he walked into the Streaming Wars — late, mind you — and instead of introducing himself and getting a lay of the land, he pulled the ring on a grenade and tossed it toward the biggest player in the field.

Back up, bitches, we're WarnerMedia!

Interesting play.

Netflix has a brand. It's volume. And Greenblatt knows that. Otherwise he wouldn't have followed up with this: "That's a great business model when you're trying to reach as many people on the planet as you can."

Somewhere Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos of Netflix probably read that and said, "You're exactly right, Bob."

Because:

1. It is a great business plan for Netflix.

2. Until someone kills or otherwise reins in Netflix, it will continue to try to reach as many people on the planet as it can, at the peril of all competitors. And ...

3. All this translates into Netflix's other brand halo: domination.

You can't fault Greenblatt for mixing it up a little. WarnerMedia isn't going to make a splash in the streaming market by being quiet. But the problem with rattling Netflix's cage is that it makes a big din and people pay attention, and then they wonder what you've got going. You know, what's your brand, WarnerMedia?

And that's a problem — one that Greenblatt is now tasked with fixing.

Netflix's brand is Kleenex. People who say "Let's watch Netflix" also use it to mean "Let's stream something tonight," or "Let's binge-watch something tonight," or "Let's watch TV tonight." It's the interchangeable, agreed-upon thing in the zeitgeist that you're granted when, as just one example, you are a gigantic brain-eating brand.

Nobody is saying "WarnerMedia and chill." Nobody lets the compound title "WarnerMedia" roll off their tongue as if it's second nature — not ever, not now.

Netflix, on the other hand, is one of the most identifiable brands on the planet, and the king of streaming. For pretty much anyone under the age of 30, Netflix is going to be their No. 1 streaming choice when they spend money. They might not even think about a No. 2 choice. That's a royal and daunting problem for every other streamer. 

WarnerMedia doesn't have brand recognition, but Greenblatt, no dummy, is going to start making distinctions that give it one. And the not-so-subtle jab he made recently was meant to imply that Netflix is a gigantic wasteland of content and that it's amorphous and enormous, a murky entity, a blob. It stands out because it's big, but doesn't stand for anything — quality in particular.

WarnerMedia, of course, owns HBO — the O.G. of smug it's-not-television classism branding. And if you'll just look away for a moment and not pay attention to the telecom overlord demanding that boutique HBO change its ways to become, you know, more Netflix-like in its output, then you can catch a glint of the shade Greenblatt was throwing there, irony-infused or not.

Greenblatt's comments might have been a bit ill-advised given that WarnerMedia only brand right is "that thing AT&T is building out of parts it bought and whose name it's thankfully not adding 'AT&T' to the front of," which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

But the spirit of brand-building was in his voice: He spoke of delineation, of starting to create a brand that isn't Netflix and using Netflix as a slur, a name that conjures up a black hole where TV shows and movies and stand-up specials and documentaries are dumped. A place that has everything but where you can't find much.

That's actually pretty smart. And not, arguably, entirely wrong. 

But here's the problem about brand-building with smack talk: Netflix is a thing that already exists. It's an omnibrand. It lives in a world where Amazon exists too. And Hulu. All three of them are big, known things. Coming to the Streaming Wars battlefield in 2019: Disney+ — known brand. Apple — known brand. And WarnerMedia — a thing that seems enormous, with cool stuff in the vault, but we're not sure exactly what.

You see the problem for Greenblatt and company. 

Beyond the people in this town and concentric circles of media-savvy types just beyond, exactly what the hell WarnerMedia is remains something of a mystery. Isn't it owned by AT&T, or maybe Time or Warner Bros.? But not all of them, right? Wait, HBO and TNT and TBS are part of it? Are you sure? But not the famous movie studio, right? CNN — really? DC Entertainment? No, that's not possibly true, I don't think. I heard some games are part of it and maybe some cartoons. Doesn't it own Friends? Or does Netflix?

If you think that's ludicrous, have your nonindustry friends ask their friends what WarnerMedia is. 

If WarnerMedia wants to sell itself to people who are willing to pay for another streaming service beyond Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Disney+ (oh, come on, you know people are already budgeting for that last one), then consumers will need to know what they'll be getting for their money. Compare its situation to Disney+, which can just say, "We're Disney, just like the name says," and people will put their credit cards in a hat. Or, "At Disney+, you'll have access to everything Star Wars and all the Pixar movies and everything we've ever put in the Disney vault," and at that point people will be crying if you don't turn their pockets inside out.

Greenblatt's job, and that of everyone working at WarnerMedia, is to take an enormous company with incredible assets, a very deep bench and tons of content that people will pay for, and articulate that into — what's the word? — a brand.

Outside of a relatively small group of people standing on a relatively small plot of land, not many people know how formidable WarnerMedia is and how much bang for their buck they'd get by signing up for it. 

So, while the cockiness that Greenblatt displayed is always appreciated when a big fight is about to go down, it might be a little more prudent to let people know how badass you are and what weapons you've got in the arsenal before you go and take on the Death Star of streaming.