Category: Ideas

“Hurry Up and Wait” for the Streaming Wars: Netflix’s Q3 2019 Earnings Report

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If you ever found yourself in the armed forces, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of “hurry up and wait”. It worked like this. A dignitary is coming in. Say a three star general. So your two star general plans a division parade. Which means the Command Sergeant Major sets it up. Scheduled to start at 1000 (ten hundred in parlance), the Division Sergeant Major tells his Brigades he wants them in position by 0930, so of course that means standing in place at 0915.

Woe to the unit that is late, by the way, which is why everyone is “hurrying”.

Here’s where the fun starts. The brigades don’t want to be late for the 0915 “time hack”, so they have their troops show up in formation at 0830, to be ready 30 minutes early too. Then the battalions say, well, “Let’s be ready 30 minutes before that.”

And so on. With companies, platoons and even squads.

Eventually, you have thousands of soldiers leaving their houses at 0500 in the morning—and skipping PT— so that they can stand in formation for 3 hours doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.

That’s my feeling for Netflix’s latest earnings report. If I can speak for my fellow Netflix hawks—be they bulls or bears—we had this date circled since July. Will Netflix miss subscribers targets again? Could the stock tank? Or will Netflix crush estimates? And what will Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have to say about the “streaming wars”, which start next month? 

No kidding, the (hashtag) streaming wars made it in the shareholder letter.

IMAGE 1 - The Streaming Wars

After all the waiting…we didn’t learn much. Netflix hit almost all their targets on the dot and Hastings/Sarandos didn’t reveal any ground breaking news.

Instead, we hurried up, but we’re still waiting for the streaming wars. Sigh. Still, we learned a few things in the latest earnings report. Let’s start with strategy, touch on the specifics and end with the subscribers/financials. Oh, and meta thoughts to conclude.

Strategy: Focused, but Narrow?

When it comes to strategy, Netflix probably has the clearest plan and simplest business model of all the streamers. They sell subscriptions and they plan to dominate all scripted and reality viewing. If you want to know their strategic advantage, it’s that. They know what they are, and they’re extremely focused on that.

And they still have a big goals: they want to take over TV all over the globe. If you want Netflix’s global upside for share price, it’s all this. Honestly, “Netflix bears” like myself probably neglect how much additional revenue can come from this global conquest.

But it isn’t cheap, of course. Netflix is spending $10 billion in amortized and $15+ billion in actual cash each year (from 10K) to get those new subscribers. Worse, the most valuable subscribers are in the United States, then Europe, then Japan and then descending down the GDP per capita income ladder. And those most valuable markets are nearing Netflix saturation. (Meanwhile some, like China, remain off limits.)

The most interesting observation, for me, was about the content strategy. Here’s the introduction to the content section of the shareholder letter:

IMAGE 2 - Content Strategy Summary

This content strategy manages to be both broad and limited, at the same time. Broad because Netflix is competing on film and TV and scripted and unscripted for kids and adults and everyone. 

And it’s limited because that’s all they are competing on? If “live TV” isn’t an option, that means  events, sports and news just aren’t in the cards.

In other words, for all the growth in content spend, many TV consumers will want a TV service that provides news and sports. If Netflix can’t fulfill someone’s entire TV demand, that means customers will have to watch other options too. If you value Netflix’s stock price as “becoming TV”, well you’re seeing a company that knows it won’t be that. Sure, it has a chance (that is becoming smaller every week) of “become all scripted and reality TV”, but that will be a pricey fight.

My view is that as long as customers need to have other TV services, Netflix is increasingly likely to be churned out of someone’s regular diet.

Nor does Netflix have the capital to branch out into a large new business like either buying DAZN or Roku or even a Lionsgate. They could merge with any of those, but any new venture that has huge upfront costs will stress their cash flow even further. Apple, Amazon and Disney don’t have those hindrances. That means Netflix needs to be perfect on everything decision from here on out to maximize that share price. That’s tough. 

So let’s get into those specifics.

Content: Some Selected Datecdotes Tell Us Some Things

Let’s start with the headlines you did not see yesterday. And the “null results” because I want to place in your easily available forebrain the idea that most shows aren’t doing well on Netflix. Or they are and it behooves Netflix to keep them secret. (I guess.)

Headline one: 

Of 162 original launches in Q3, 93% did under 29 million viewers. They were bombs.

Fine that is a bit provocative. Technically, I don’t know how many series really had less than 29 million viewers. Just because the lowest Netflix datecdote was 29 million doesn’t mean some other movie secretly did more than that, and Netflix just didn’t say. (Which, why hide that?) How’s this:

We don’t know how 93% of Netflix originals performed last year.

It’s crazy to consider that’s how many launches Netflix had in Q3, but according to my data—which means sorting this long, long list from All Your Screens Rick Ellis—that’s accurate. And given that when we do get inadvertent leaks—Steven Soderbergh said in an interview High Flying Bird had 8 million views—they are much lower, I’d bet that most other content releases were much lower than the leaks.

On to the datecdotes (explanation here) we did receive. These are both higher and lower than it seems. On the high side, I counted 12 datecdotes (authorized or leaked) since Q2. No seriously, four movies and 8 TV series. The challenge is that four of these datecdotes apply to two series (Netflix released 7 and 28 day numbers for both Stranger Things and La Casa de Papel.) And three of the TV series releases didn’t actually have numbers just “biggest TV series in the country” (Sintonia, The Naked Director and Sacred Heart.)

Since I’ve done feature films the last two times, I’m going to try to draw out some conclusions from the TV side this edition. Here’s my summary table of the data:

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 4.28.29 PM.pngAnd now some implications.

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Why Most Netflix Charts Start in 2012: A History of Netflix Subscribers

On a recent The Weeds podcast, Matt Yglesias talked with Binyamin Applebaum about “how economists took over the world”, based on Applebaum’s recent book. Midway through, Applebaum told a fascinating story about how business leaders often get their forecasts about government regulations/interventions wrong. During the Great Depression, as part of the New Deal, President Roosevelt wanted to create the SEC and force companies to release audited financial statements. Apparently, part of the roaring 20s including gross accounting fraud, including create false prospectuses and financial documents.

Naturally, business folks and economist types of the time said these onerous requirements would destroy investing/capitalism.

But they didn’t! In fact, the value created from audited financial statements is arguably one of the greatest value creating regulations in financial history.

Why tell this story in an article ostensibly about Netflix? First, it’s a great example of how regulations make things better for society, despite the cries of protest from business.

Second, even now, a lot of financial statements are currently pretty rubbish. Sorry “suboptimal” in business parlance. What they lack in substance, they make up in heft; they are long, filled with hundreds of pages of legal jargon designed to obscure and CYA, but they still don’t tell you that much.

When you pull up the financials of a company like Google—for example—you discover that they only break out the operating segment information for two businesses: Google and moonshots “Other Bets”. What? Why not break out Youtube and Gmail and Waze? As Matt Stoller informed me, Google runs 8 businesses with 1 billion or more users; they shouldn’t be broken out by themselves? (Google does provide more granularity on revenue sources, but still only four revenue streams!)

Let’s look at Amazon: they run Prime Video, Music, Games, Channels, Twitch, and Comixology. Could they make a “media enterprises” business segment and share operating performance for all those companies combined?

Yep! And guess what, it would be fairly easy to do.

Which brings us to Netflix. They too have tried to minimize the numbers they provide over time. Worse, every so often they change their definitions, and stop reporting old numbers. Which makes an enterprise like the one I pursued last week much more fraught. To help build the table with subscriber numbers, I had to go through essentially 20 years of Netflix annual reports to figure out how they defined subscriber totals every year.  Fortunately, this deep dive taught me a lot about Netflix, and could help you understand their history a bit better.

Today, I’ll tell you what I learned, including the different definitions of subscribers, how they have evolved over time and the two pieces of data I’d still love to see.

The Six Definitions Netflix Has Used for Subscribers in the US

As I mentioned last week, here’s an example from Statista of a chart of Netflix global subscribers. 

IMAGE 1 - Statista Netflix Subscribers

Here’s another one. Here’s another one from my archives in Statista that doesn’t match my numbers:

IMAGE 2 - Statista NFLX 2011 Table

Meanwhile, most of the other charts I found with Netflix started in 2012. Which seems like an odd decision. Since I don’t like uncertainty in my estimates, I pulled the data myself for my article applying Bass Diffusion to Netflix. (I had previously done this back in March for this Decider article.)

As I churned through the financial docs, three big categories leapt out at me. Netflix has highlighted different numbers as their “top line” subscriber number, which news reports usually echo. For instance, up until the end of last year, Netflix reported “total subscribers” inluding free-trial and paid subscribers together. Now they’re only emphasizing paid subscribers. When they made the change, some folks thought their numbers had declined. Anyways, the three big areas I see are:

– Location: US, International or Global: Pretty self explanatory, and Netflix has combined these to report “global”. 

– Paid vs Free-Trials: I tend toward “paid” as my preference because it means the people have actually committed to the product and aren’t just sampling. (Netflix changed last year to focusing on paid vs free-trials, which is what they had reported before.)

– DVD vs Streaming: Before 2007, you could only rent DVDs through Netflix. After 2007, you could rent DVD or stream content or do both. Before 2011 a subscription paid for both, then it didn’t. 

The only challenge is some of those categories are mutually exclusive (paid vs free trial) and some aren’t (DVD vs streaming). So I made a table to simplify it in my head. 

IMAGE 3 - NFLX Metadata

The key is the “unique” number versus total subscribers when it comes to DVDs and streaming. For a short period, Netflix gave the total numbers, even when unique was more accurate. Nowadays, for the record, Netflix just gives streaming as DVD subscriptions decline.

Combining the Definitions in One Chart

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Why I Think Netflix Will End Up with 70 Million US Subscribers: Applying Bass Diffusion To The Streaming Wars

(Before we start, I launched a newsletter! It’s weekly and it’s short, and I explained my logic here. Sign up here.)

My goal is to try, as best I can, to explain the complicated parts of the entertainment biz, trying to walk readers through what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Unfortunately, even when I’ve tried to simplify things, I’ve gotten comments that my articles are pretty dense. That’s what happens when you don’t have an editor. 

With that preamble, today’s article is math-y.

This is about as math-y as I can get. I’ll be slinging terms like linear programming and mean absolute percentage error. To help out, I’m going to start with a BLUF (bottom line up front) so you can read my findings even if you don’t want to read my process to learn how I pulled it off.

Today is the “Bass Diffusion Model” in action. In layman’s terms, the Bass Diffusion Model is a way to calculate a “total addressable market” (TAM or “market size” in non-jargon terms) for various new products or innovations. As the headline suggests, today we’re turning our gaze towards Netflix as a stand-in for the streaming world.

BLUF – Netflix’s Market Size in the US is closer to 70 million than 90 million

When you apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US operations, the model which fits best has a market size in the United States of around 70-72 million subscribers. In other words, a saturated US market is much closer to the low end of Netflix’s projected outcome (60 million) than the high end (90 million). 

The Bass Diffusion model fits the data pretty well. My average “error” fitting the Bass Model to Netflix is 1 million for streaming only and 600K for all subscribers.

That said, applying the Bass model to Netflix isn’t perfect. First, Netflix transitioned from a DVD company to a streaming company, which is arguably two different product innovations. Second, Netflix isn’t alone in the streaming world, and we only have current Netflix subscribers in any period, and don’t know how many folks are still streaming, but no longer Netflix subscribers. Third, this is a US only model. In the future, I plan to apply the projections to the international markets (which has its own problems) and for all streamers.

The Origin Story – Seeing Bass Diffusion Applied in the early 2010s.

Going to b-school during the Qwikster debacle of 2013 made for interesting class discussions. Overnight, Netflix became a laughing stock. Yet, even with that debacle the year before, they had kept adding streaming customers. They were the growth story already—23%!—leading some early analysts to throw out huge potential market sizes. How long would this double digit growth continue for?

That’s when my professor—a marketing professor, naturally—trotted out the Bass Diffusion Model. We’d all learned this model in marketing the year before; I’d never considered applying it here. He did, and out popped a total market size: about 60 million US subscribers. The model fit really well. 

That 60 million has stuck in my head and influenced my thinking ever since. It’s why I launched this series and why I kept my annual subscriber projections a bit lower than most observers last January. Seriously, look at this chart I made back for an article on Hulu at DeciderBass doesn’t leap off as strongly as it did for Fortnite, but you can see it for Netflix and especially see it for Hulu.

Image 1 - NFLX StartFrankly, because of that one application, the 60 million subscribers point in the US felt like the point where we’d see Netflix slow down. Then, in Q2 of this year…that reality finally happened.

The good news for Netflix is the last few years have had better subscriber growth for Netflix than that old Bass model. (For those keeping score, my projection last year was probably too low.) The bad news? Well, 90 million subscribers is looking MUCH harder to reach. But instead of relying on old estimates, today is about making new ones.

The Task – Forecast Netflix Subscriber Growth in the United States

Just to be clear, my goal today is to apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US subscriber count. Why US only? Well, it has a few more data points which will make it a bit more accurate. More over, the recent slow down point gives me a bit more confidence that we’re seeing the inflection, which I’m not sure we’ve seen internationally yet. 

I’ll be building two models, though, because Netflix has actually had two products: the DVD delivery and streaming video. Unfortunately, Netflix has been a bit tricky when it releases subscriber counts, which means I needed to make some assumptions. Let’s explain those.

The Data – Netflix Subscriber Counts Over Time

To really make the Bass model work, I needed to do a lot of cleaning of my Netflix subscriber data to make sure everything I was calculating was apples-to-apples. Wait, doesn’t Netflix provide this? They do, every year. Here’s a Statista table summarizing that. Can’t we just use that?

Unfortunately, it’s a bit unreliable. When I use data, I pull it myself so I can vet it. For example, with those Statista numbers, are those numbers paid subscribers or free? Streaming only? Or all subscribers? Many tables and charts for Netflix actually mix up those categories in the same chart.

In fact, even in my chart above—the one for Decider—I did a bit of that.

So I updated all my Netflix subscriber numbers, calculating streaming and all subscribers for Netflix from the beginning of time. This took me SO long—and I had some insights into Netflix’s history from it—that I’m going to write it up as its own, probably too-in-the-weeds, article. In the meantime, just know these colors are the six different ways Netflix has revealed subscribers to investors:

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Read My Latest at Decider: “‘The Boys’ Is a Hit for Amazon, But What Does That Mean?”

Last week, I threw up a quick Twitter thread on The Boys and I just turned it into a full article for Decider.  (And it’s short for me, about 800 words.)

So take a read and share on social media! Appreciate it in advance.

Of course, trying to judge if a series is performing well or poorly is NOT simple. And as I found some new data sources, I had thoughts that got cut from the final article. (As always.) So here’s the rest of the story, including a broadcast comparison, how I think about managing messy data sets and the rest of Amazon Studios datecdotes.

Introduction – A BH90210 Comparison

Initially, I was going to compare The Boys to BH90210, the Beverly Hills, 90210 revival that was off to a good start last week. Here’s the Variety quote on its success:

Image 1 - Variety TV Rating

That’s good! Or is it bad? I mean, is 3.8 million people watching good? Honestly, with broadcast we don’t know since a show like Night Court used to get 20 million viewers in the 1980s, and The Big Bang Theory—the biggest show on broadcast in 2019—didn’t even get that for its finale. (Fine, it did with DVR viewing.) No seriously, here are the ratings for Night Court:

Image 2 - Night Court Ratings

So which was bigger, BH90210 or The Boys? To the Google Trends. Now, here’s the first look and you can say, “Well The Boys won”…

Image 3 - The Boys initial

But I told you Google Trends was finicky, didn’t I? The problem with a show like BH90210 is the title is super generic and derivative off another series. So here’s with a few other variations on that title.

Image 4 - GTrends Updated

Add them all up, and BH9210 was more in the consciousness than The Boys. Whether that translates to more viewers, I can’t say. But it provides some “broadcast to streaming” context.

Comment on Amazon Datecdotes

One of my favorite parts about writing and researching this article was it forced me to look up all of Amazon’s “datecdotes“. Which I’d been meaning to do since their last earnings report, where they again touted Emmy success while steadfastly avoiding numbers a la Netflix.

Now, why wouldn’t Amazon tell us good news? Well, the pro-Amazon case is they have all sorts of good news but are hoarding it for some advantage. That’s frankly BS. My rule of thumb with all large organizations—from the government to any corporation—is they share good news and hide/bury the bad.

The most basic assumption is that Amazon’s overall numbers are much, much smaller than Netflix, so they avoid specifics. Because if they did, they would look bad. That’s simple logic.

Anyways, here’s my Amazon datecdotes table, a la Netflix. Notably, I left out two other sets of numbers for space in my Decider piece. First, the Reuters leak from last year had aadditional details for Transparent and Good Girls Revolt. Second, last fall Amazon touted it’s NFL viewership numbers for Thursday Night Football:

Image 5 - AMZN Datecdotes

Some quick notes. For The Man In the High Castle, for example, we still don’t really know what 8 million viewers means. Is that over the lifetime, up to the point in time Reuters got the leak? Or some shorter time period? With data, that distinction is really important. 

Or take The Tick as a top five series for Amazon in 2017. That would worry me, given that as the IMDb data shows that series wasn’t even that popular. And it was in their top five? And now it and Sneaky Pete are off your platform? That would make make me think the other series are much much smaller than we imagine. (Sneaky Pete was also a Sony co-production. So the co-pro curse strikes again.)

Google Trends – The Boys Pessimistic Case

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Read My Latest at Decider: “To Binge or Not to Binge: Who Won the Battle Between Game of Thrones and Stranger Things”?

I just had a guest article published at Decider, this time asking, “Should Netflix keep binge releasing all its series?” My conclusion: not all of them. Essentially, Netflix is leaving “awareness” on the table.

Take a read and share on social media. Also, shout out to Alan Wolk, who tackled this back in the spring with Game of Thrones. I’d been toying with this idea when I read his take, and tried to update his thesis with the Stranger Things data point.

Like all long articles I write, I had two ideas that didn’t fit in the main piece. Here they are.

Has Hulu’s Weekly Release Helped?

It’s tough to say. Here’s the brutal case against it:

Image 8 - G Trends with Handmaids

Frankly, The Handmaid’s Tale is their most popular series and it is clearly the lightweight to the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things heavyweights. So let’s drop those two, and throw it up against some similar competition.

Chart 7 - Google Trends TV.png

That’s better, and you can see the same weekly interest boost that Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones had, just on a different scale. Instead, I still think that Hulu is just much, much smaller than Netflix right now. (Which, yes, isn’t breaking news.) Or about where HBO is, given that the interest almost matches something like Big Little Lies.

The counter to the binge model, though, could also be this chart. If The Handmaid’s Tale had dropped on one weekend, would Hulu even have a chance to keep it in the conversation? I don’t think so. In this case, Hulu made the right decision. This naturally leads us to ask about not just the current streamers, but the future streamers.

What Should the DAWN (Disney, Apple, Warner and NBC) Streamers Do?

Well, it depends on who you are and what your business model is, but overall, I’d be flexible. If you have a show with tons of pent up demand—like the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Amazon—consider weekly releases for the first season. Ride the potential enthusiasm to help launch weeks worth of content.

For the rest, I’d consider what type of content you have. Disney has a lot of shows that will benefit from weekly releases. Star Wars or Marvel TV series are guaranteed to drive conversation on comics and sci-f (fanboy) websites and podcasts. Weekly releases will amplify their reach from season one. For other dramas? Maybe not.

For HBO Max, they know all about launching prestige television, but HBO is about to quickly run out of days to launch all their content. In that sense, having more binge releases may make sense. Though again many of their fantasy or superhero series are destined to be stars in recap culture. For NBC, I still know so little about their platform that I won’t even speculate.

Apple may benefit the most from the binge release model. They are buying a ton of content and needs lots of buzz right from launch. Moreover, they aren’t trying to build a streaming platform per se, but a TV platform of which the content serves a subsidiary purpose. They should probably consider an approach closer to launching all series on binge, then rolling out the hits weekly for season twos.

Fine, What About Netflix?

If I were Netflix, I think they are missing something essential about how the social conversation drives a show to new heights. Right now, they have one potential mega-hit in Stranger Things. Even if they want to keep binge releases for all ten thousand other releases, they should consider carving exceptions for their biggest hits. A Stranger Things weekly release likely would have brought in new customer which they, um, need nowadays.

The key boils down to flexibility and being innovative. Innovation is not saying “Never, never, never.” It’s about understanding your customers, your business models and the attention landscape to maximize your return on assets.

“Neverflix” – What Netflix’s Q2 Earnings Says About Their Future Strategy

This sub-bullet in CNBC’s “prepare you for the earnings report” article caught my attention:

QUOTE 11 - Wont catch p soonOn the surface, it’s clearly true. One bad earnings report won’t power Disney+ or HBO Max to 150 million subscribers. But as I reflected on it, the key variable is “when is soon?” By the end of the year, sure, Netflix is safe. But what about the end of 2020? Or 2021? If someone does catch up to Netflix, then the streaming wars will have a new champion.

Let’s see if the earnings report sheds any light on that question.

Strategy

Most earnings reports don’t reveal monumental shifts in strategy. This report would mostly qualify, except that Netflix did rule out a key potential revenue stream in fairly definitive terms.

“Neverflix”

At the end of last year, when it came to a Netflix show airing on a linear channel, I called Netflix the “company of Never”:

QUOTE 12 Neverflix

This earnings report doubled down on the fact that Netflix will NOT roll out advertising any time soon. I believe them and agree with this position. Adding advertisements will concretely change the user experience, likely leading to higher subscriber churn than the ad wizards begging for it expect.

I have softened on the position of “never” recently. I do appreciate Netflix’s relentless focus. A good strategy is a focused strategy, and saying “No” to efforts that divide your energy can be a wise tactic. But let’s not go overboard. For example, releasing episodes weekly.

I’d argue that decision is not material to the Netflix customer experience. Instead, binge releasing is a decision they made, and now cling to unnecessarily. Why isn’t, for example, Stranger Things 3 being released weekly? Having one series go weekly won’t lead to customer churn. There may be a 10,000 angry fans on the internet who want the binge, but again that’s noise, not signal. (I like this issue so much, I wrote an article for another publication coming out soon.)

Oh, and one other “never” that should really worry Reed Hastings.

The Never That Terrifies Me: Aggregation

If I understand the Netflix bulls correctly, the sky-high stock price—if it isn’t based on past performance being sky-high—is due to the fact that at some point, Netflix will be TV. Netflix isn’t just “another streamer”, it’s the future of TV. But is that future already in the rear view mirror?

Currently, many people get their HBO, Showtime and Starz through Amazon Channels. More will get Disney+, HBO and Showtime through Hulu. Apple will have another set of channels. Already, people experience streaming through Roku, and they added the ability to buy channels too. 

In other words, as Ben Thompson coined, the streamers are getting aggregated.

Eventually, the aggregators will offer bundles or discounts. Netflix, though, won’t be included because they have started pushing everyone to subscribe through the internet, instead of through those platforms. They did this because all those aggregators charge fees to sell the channels. I see two sub-optimal outcomes for Netflix as a result:

1. Eventually they get aggregated, which means they are “just” HBO.

2. They struggle to get awareness and presence outside the bundled aggregators.

Either choice is bad, and the sooner Netflix realizes it the better. (Hopefully more to come on this topic.)

Distribution: The good news

If avoiding digital bundlers is the downside case for Netflix, the upside case is integration with MVPD providers. Netflix announced that they will now be on AT&T’s devices that enable streaming integration. I’ve seen this work on Cox’s (via Comcast) Contour system, and it really does complement the cable bundle. Amazon Prime/Video is right behind them, and both are well ahead of the new streamers to catch up to their head start.

Competition: This is the low water mark for digital streaming.

Speaking of new SVODs, the other looming cloud over Netflix is the impending launch of the DAWNs: Disney, Apple, Warner-Media, and NBC-Universal. (Hat tip to Variety for coining.) Obviously, this will put pressure on Netflix to keep prices low to stay competitive—they are just below HBO in cost—and keep spending high to produce original content—they lap everyone when it comes to spending.

More interesting is how this will impact subscribers. While the launch of these streamers may inspire more cord cutting, which would benefit Netflix, the launch could also lead people to “cutflix” and trim the number of streaming options. But let’s move to our next section to discuss those implications.

Subscribers

How Many Subscribers Will Disney+ Grab?

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Netflix Q2 Earnings Report – A Lot Less for The Bulls

Back in the halcyon days of April, Netflix had just crushed another quarterly earnings report and it was riding high. In Decider, I said their report had something for both sides—for the haters and the lovers, skeptics and the supporters, bears and the bulls.

Well, Netflix finally had a bad earnings report.

The most fascinating thought, to me, was this one by Gene Munster:

“As much as I love the company, I just think its best days, unfortunately, are in fact behind it…I think we’re going to look back at this quarter as one of the pivotal moments in the Netflix story.”

If the laws of entropy are indeed correct, well at some point, every company’s best days are behind it. Unfortunately, we hardly ever realize this in the moment. This doesn’t mean the companies go out of business a la Blockbuster—IBM is well past it’s high water mark, but it’s still around and publicly traded—and it doesn’t even mean the stock price will decline—since stocks in general have gone up in general even faster than inflation. But at some point everything declines.

So is this the moment of Netflix’s high water market? Honestly, it may be. But we won’t know for sure until years from now.

To figure it out, I’m going to dig through Netflix’s last earnings report for the strategic insights I can find. As a reminder: I’m not here to give you stock advice. I’m here to critique strategy and Netflix’s quarterly reports are the best time to update my priors/data on Netflix’s strategy. Today, let’s discuss meta thoughts and content strategy; tomorrow I’ll go over strategy, subscriber and financial thoughts.

Meta Thoughts

At Least Netflix Gives Us Financial Data to Parse.

Let’s praise Netflix for one thing to start: producing this document in the first place. 

If Apple had bought Netflix in 2015, Netflix would have become an operating segment, which means that Apple could pick and choose selected numbers to release about their performance.  Likely they would have hidden as much as possible, they way they now hide iPhone sales. So I’d have much less data to judge them on.

To get a feel for this, take a gander at AT&T. We used to get a lot of HBO data every quarter—even as part of Warner-Media—but since AT&T acquired them, they went back to not reporting on HBO specifically. Meanwhile, if HBO were a standalone company, we’d have even more data than both previous reporting situations. The current situation leaves us guessing about their revenue, operating income and subscriber totals. We only get little tidbits if AT&T deigns to give it to us.

If we had to power rank the streaming platforms based on data released, right now it looks like this:

1. Youtube
2. Netflix
3. HBO
4. CBS All-Access
5. Hulu
6. Amazon Prime/Video/Studios

And all of them pale compared to the networks and TV channels of old who had TV ratings released every day and provided us financials. To Netflix’s credit, they give us their financials to make columns like this possible.

What is a “Netflix Killer” Anways?

Alan Wolk had a good article at TVRev clarifying that Netflix won’t actually disappear anytime soon, which is a statement I wholeheartedly agree with. Why, then, do so many headlines have “Netflix Killer” in them? 

Well, fuzziness in definitions. For a lot of folks, Netflix is one of the most over-priced companies in the world. They’re usually reacting to folks who think that Netflix is destined to conquer all of television. So you could reasonably say that any of the following end states is the “death of Netflix”, depending on your point of view:

1. Netflix suffers a few bad quarters and ends up with a price-to-earnings ratio around 20-25. (To show the gap, Netflix is currently at 123; most media firms trade between 15-20; Disney is currently a 20.5.)
2. Netflix is acquired by another larger digital company. (I recommend Facebook in this article.)
3. Netflix becomes the 3rd or 4th most subscribed OTT platform in America and/or the world.
4. Netflix goes out of business.

This is how I can think that Munster may be right—Netflix’s best days are behind them—and that Alan Wolk is right—there is a no “Netflix killer”. It depends on the definition. My personal opinion is that option 3 above is exceedingly likely, which means Netflix should valued like HBO, not like Amazon. Netflix is here to stay, but maybe not one of the most highly valued companies in the world, which may be death depending on how much stock you hold.

Content

How do you evaluate the biggest spender in Hollywood’s performance when they dole out so little data? By my count, they’ve released 17 “datecdotes” going back to the Q3 2018 earnings report. They’ve doled out a few more to news outlets over time, like this one to Reuters, this one to Variety or this tweet for Stranger Things last week. 

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