Netflix added 3.1 million subscriptions during the fourth quarter of 2010, and now has more than 20 million subscribers. That’s more than the total subscribers of premium channels Starz and Showtime, which have 17.3 million and 18.2 million subscribers, respectively.

What that means is that Netflix is competing with the premium cable channels, not basic cable (ad-supported channels such as ESPN).

Netflix now estimates it will expand to as many as 22.8 million subscribers in the coming quarter, a possible uptick of 14 percent. Meanwhile, the subscriber base for HBO, which ended its last quarter with 28.55 million subscribers, fell to its lowest levels in four years, and dropped 1.9 percent from the last quarter.

Netflix may someday more directly threaten basic cable service. For the moment, it seems to be doing just fine cannibalizing premium TV networks. In response, cable and other networks will have to start cannibalizing their own premium channels as well, since video-on-demand essentially replicates the Netflix streaming service.

In the near term, it is the premium networks that Netflix is displacing, not the ad-supported networks.

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