After years of anticipation, internet streaming-video service Netflix on Thursday launched in Thailand as part of a surprise global expansion that saw the US-based content provider flip the switch on 130 new countries overnight.
"You are witnessing the birth of a global TV network," CEO Reed Hastings crowed on stage at the US Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas early today Bangkok time.
The news caught almost everyone off guard because Netflix had previously set a goal of being available in most of the world by the end of this year. It looked like the California company had plenty of work ahead it because it ended December in 60 countries, but not Thailand, where viewers with overseas credit cards and bank accounts have had to use virtual private network technology to watch the tens of thousands of television shows and movies available.
Now, Netflix is available in 21 different languages - but not Thai -- and streaming in just about every market that it had in its sights, with the notable exception of China.
In Thailand, Netflix is offering a free, no-obligation trial of its service for a month. After that, subscribers can opt and switch between any of three payment plans.
Options start with a standard-definition programming package that can be viewed on only one device at a time for 280 baht a month. The standard package, at 350 baht monthly, offers HD content and simultaneous viewing on two screens. Its 420-baht-per-month plan offers four screens and Ultra-HD content, which requires a 4K television or computer monitor to enjoy.
While opening the doors to Thai viewers, Netflix has not added any new Thai-language content beyond the small selection of films it already had. And while the company on Thursday added support for three new languages, Thai was not among them. Neither the website, app or subtitles are available in Thai.
In his presentation, Mr Hastings said the global rollout is only the first step in very long global effort to add localised content and language support to its service.
"Today's launch is like having a baby, but the real work is the next 20 years," Mr Hastings said. "The real work is to become as popular in Vietnam, Thailand and Brazil as we are in the US."
To do that, Netflix will eventually add Thai-language support and obtain licences for Thai television shows and movies.
Also, while Netflix is now virtually worldwide, not of all its entertainment will be available everywhere. For instance, a prized licensing contract that gives Netflix the rights to Walt Disney films after their theatrical release will be limited to the US and Canada as part of a deal negotiated several years ago. Mr Hastings told reporters Wednesday that Netflix is hoping to expand those rights into other countries.
On the other hand, viewers in Thailand -- even those with a pre-existing account established in the US or UK - will get access to content not available to Netflix users in their home countries, such as movies like The Godfather and television shows including Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul and the television reboot of 12 Monkeys.
Another significant difference Thailand viewers may not look forward to is the same type censorship used in cinemas here and employed by Netflix in other markets to adhere to local media laws.
In a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Mr Hastings said Netflix may introduce "clean" versions of films, similar to those shown on airliners, to address Thai and other local countries' rules on mature content, violence and respecting cultural sensibilities.
Netflix already sanitises content in Japan, pixelating full-frontal nudity seen in its original Marco Polo series and other content. In Thailand, the service could follow cinematic practice by pixelating smoking, drinking and bloody violence, as well as censor nude scenes.
Netflix is offering three payment plans for Thailand-based viewers. All include a 30-day free trial.
The China syndrome
Entering China may be a formidable challenge requiring potentially prickly negotiations with a government that blocks its citizenry from seeing material it considers objectionable or incendiary.
In an interview, Mr Hastings said the company will try to a partner in China while it tries to appease the country's Communist government, a process that he hopes to complete by the end of this year.
"The key in approaching the Chinese business is really working on relationships," Hastings told The Associated Press. "In the rest of the world, we are racing ahead."
Netflix currently has no plans to push into North Korea, Syria or Crimea because of restrictions on US companies operating in those countries. The company's service also may not be an immediate hit in several other major countries, including Russia, Turkey and Poland, where it will only be available in English.
Nevertheless, investors were delighted with Netflix's quantum leap across the globe. Its stock climbed US$10.02, or 9%, to close at $117.68 on a grim day in the rest of the market.
The uptick in the shares reflects a belief that Netflix is now in a position to sign up more subscribers this year than analysts had previously anticipated, generating additional revenue that the company can spend on TV series and movies as it bids against rivals such as HBO, Amazon.com, YouTube and Hulu for licensing rights.
Netflix Inc began the year with more than 70 million subscribers and management had already vowed to spend about $5 billion this year licensing video from studios around the world.
Increasingly, Netflix has been buying material that only can be seen on its service, with more than 600 hours of original programming lined up for this year. That slate encompasses more than 50 exclusive TV shows and movies, including award-winning series such as House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.
Netflix has come up with a formula that has proven addictive as its service has transformed the entertainment industry by allowing people to watch video anytime they want on an Internet-connected device.
Hastings revealed Wednesday that Netflix subscribers watched 42.5 billion hours of programming last year, including 12 billion hours in the October-December fourth quarter. The fourth-quarter viewership volume represented a nearly 50% increase from 8.25 billion hours the previous year. Put another way, Netflix subscribers are now watching a weekly average of 13 hours of programming, up from 12 hours the previous year.