Category: Netflix

My Questions for Netflix’s 2019 Q1 Earnings Call

I did something fun for the first time last week: I emailed questions for a corporate earnings call. Obviously, it was Netflix.

I’ll let you know why.. (And I’m under no illusions that I’ll actually have one of these questions asked.) Normally, if you asked me if earnings calls matter, I’d say no. Sure, the letter to shareholders will have some data, and the quarterly reports matter to investors, but the presentation is the most self-interested presentation imaginable. It would be like listening to just the closing statement of the prosecution in a trial. You’d get a lot more guilty verdicts, don’t you think?

But I have a much larger project I hope to unveil sometime this year where I make a “power ranking” of streaming/bundling services. From ad-supported to sports, anything digital video I will rank in one definitive list. Like sports power rankings, if you go to ESPN or any sports website nowadays.

To build that ranking requires good information, like all good decisions. And right now the company that has the most black holes in data, for me, is Netflix. Since I’ve written about their data and even coined a phrase about how selectively they pull it (read here for “datecdotes”), I naturally had the most questions for Netflix, and they convinced me to finally write an email.

To be fair—meaning unbiased across all digital video companies—I hope to roll out this type of feature semi-regularly with other digital video companies. Google, Apple and Disney are the most relevant, though Disney gets a brief reprieve with all the information they dropped on us last week. Youtube deserves a ton of questions and so does Apple with their paucity of information.

With that preamble, onto the questions. I have three big areas: Viewership (to see how valuable their content is), activity (to gauge how subscribers interact with the site) and subscribers (to probe their business model a bit). After each question, I’ll explain my reasoning in parentheses. These explanations I didn’t send!

Viewership

– In the last earnings call, Netflix reported that Bird Box was viewed by 80 million customers over the first four weeks. During that time, was it the most viewed movie on your platform? Over 2019 as a whole, was it the most viewed movie on your platform? Have any Star Wars, Marvel or Disney Animated films had more viewers than Bird Box since their respective launches?

(As we look to the battlefield of 2020, churn is the name of the game. Is the most popular content on Netflix leaving? I believe it is with either Friends (or other long running TV shows like it) or all the Disney content. This question helps get at that for the movies side, especially the Disney content.)

– In the Q3 earnings call of last year, you said that 80 million unique customer accounts had watched one or more “Summer of Love” romantic comedies on your site, was that using the same standard as Bird Box, where you counted “watched” as 70% completion of a film?

(If Netflix answers this, I’d be shocked. My guess is they moved to the 70% threshold after minor pushback on their Q3 report. They knew they had to explain the calculation, but waited for a film that did well enough, like Bird Box, to justify it. Still, if they say, “No”, then that “Summer of Love” number can be severely discounted. Likely they won’t ever answer either way.)

– How many people watched The Christmas Chronicles? Or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs or Private Life? How many hours have customers viewed for any of this content? (You reported in the last earnings call that you do track hours viewed on site.)

(Again, this is to help flesh out the context of whatever numbers they do release. And the scale of losses. This is the best example of how one-sided an earnings report is. If there were a “defendant” making the bear case, these are the numbers their defense lawyers would seize on to make their case, to continue the prosecutor announcement from earlier.)

Activity

– In 2018, what was your monthly active users? What has been your monthly active users in 2019?

(Monthly active users is the metrics that “feels” right for me when it comes to truly understanding the people who love your service. I don’t have data, but my gut that it explains usage best. Monthly users are the people who devoured some piece of your content in their entertainment diet. Subscribers is not that. If I were “entertainment czar” all streamers would have to release this.)

– You reported the service “averages” 100 million hours a day of viewing in the US in a month. How much does that average vary by month? What does the time on site distribution look like by customer decile? What was the annual daily average?

(We all hate averages, don’t we? Well I do. They don’t tell use anything. And since someone quoted the “2 hours per day” number to me for Netflix usage recently, it made me want to know a lot more about it. Also, related to this is the variance overtime. December happens to be a huge month for Netflix, so touting numbers from December is deliberately overselling the annual performance.)

Subscribers

– In your Q4 report, you mentioned a net add of 29 million customer accounts. What was the number of gross adds versus net? How does this breakdown internationally versus US? You used to report gross adds in 2011, why did you move away from this metric?

(I didn’t know Netflix used to report this, and this is the type of number they should report, if you follow the standard, “Does the CEO get this information?” Because Reed Hastings definitely does. [I love that standard, by the way.] Again, churn is the name of the game, and the great thing about Netflix’s 60 million or subscribers is that it grows steadily every year. Which gives an illusion of stability the gross number would help understand. International is even more curious for me.)

– What is the total unique subscriber base you have had in the US since you launched streaming?

(My final way to get at the churn questions. Say Netflix had had 140 million unique subscribers in the US since launching in 2008. Some of those are duplicate accounts—people who signed up, then switched—surely. But some aren’t. That gets to the idea that it isn’t like Netflix is convincing people to try Netflix for the first time, but to come back. Which is fascinating, to me, and a different business challenge.)

Prediction Time: Forecasting the Effect of Netflix’s Price Increase on US Subscribers

Netflix moves the PR needle. Even I jumped into the Twitter maelstrom to generate clicks based on their two announcements last week, especially the decision to increase prices on US customers.

The problem, for me, is that Twitter, as a medium, is really bad at digging into numbers. It isn’t Twitter’s fault; spreadsheets just don’t really fit. (See my last big analysis article for another debate taken off-Twitter.)

As a result, a lot of the “debate” on Twitter devolves into “this is good” or “this is bad”, with some anecdotes thrown in and the occasional Twitter rant. The fun thing in the #StreamingWars2019 is we’ve all clearly taken a side and this war will only end with all our heads on pikes. (I’m rereading Game of Thrones/ASOIAF in preparation for April 14th and George R.R. Martin ends lots of events with that outcome.)

We can do better than Twitter debates. Today, I want to make the subtext of all the discussion on Netflix text. I want to change the terms of the debate around Netflix by moving into concrete specifics. Strategy is numbers, right? 

That means putting our predictions into quantitative terms. I described my process for this regarding M&A back in July and my series on Lucasfilm. So here’s the question:

How will Netflix’s price increase in 2019 impact US subscribers in 2019?

The results will come in when Netflix announces their annual/quarterly earning in January 2020. For the record, Netflix currently has 58.5 paid memberships at the end of Q4 2018, among three tiers of pricing. Over Q1 and Q2 of this year, they’ll increase prices $1 to $2, raises of 13-18%. 

I’m going to walk through my process to make a prediction. First, I’ll explain why I’m predicting customers in 2019, not other financial factors. Second, I’ll evaluate what we know and some good and bad ways to look at the problem. Third, I’ll talk a bit about the data and finally make my prediction. Feel free to leave yours as a comment on this article or in my Twitter feed.

Stating the Problem: If the number of subscribers who leave is lower than 18%, it’s a win.

This is the simplest of simple microeconomics that Netflix is practicing here. If you raise prices, but the units sold (in this case, customers) decreases less in percentage terms than the price increases, you make money. (Assuming no increases in costs.) Since this is digital and each additional “unit” sold has a marginal cost of zero, that math works. (Note: this is still an “assumption”. If you continue to need a larger and larger content library to woo subscribers, well then our magic “marginal costs is zero” isn’t actually true.)

economics model

Source: EconomicsHelp.org

Like the “value creation” model, the above chart is the simplest explanation of price and supply and how they interact, but it is woefully incomplete. Many, many other variables ultimately impact the number of units sold or customers who subscribe.

Yet, as rule of thumb, it works. The number, therefore, to watch out for is the subscriber growth or decrease. If Netflix decreases its subscribers to 55.6 million paid subscribers, that’s a 5% decrease. Since that is still lower than the 18% price increase, the move made financial sense. Thus, the terms of the debate change to, “will Netflix customers grow, slow or halt?” Here’s the past 7 years of subscriber numbers (paid, US):

subs from earnings reports

Predicting the Effects: How Many Subscribers will Drop from Netflix?

There are a couple of ways to try to triangulate this number, but let’s start with how not to do it.

The Bad Prediction Method: Using yourself as a data point.

Many people when discussing TV or film use themselves as the ur-example of a customer. I saw multiple people say on Twitter something along the lines of, “I use Netflix all the time. I don’t care about a $2 increase. Ipso facto, this doesn’t matter.”

Now, if you are a representative sample size of America, then congratulations. This analogy works. (Also, I have a ton of other questions to ask you. Like who will win the 2020 election? You should know.) If instead, you are a single data point, then we need something else.

The Trust Method: Believe in Netflix’s army of economists.

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 18 January 2019: NBCU Streaming & Netflix Has Very Ordinary Economics

If you judged importance by following my Twitter feed, the most important story of the week is Netflix and Netflix and Netflix. For business leaders plotting the future of entertainment, though, remember to always look for the “signal” through the noise. A lot of Netflix news is Netflix noise. “Buzziness” may justify Netflix’s original programming goals, but it doesn’t tell us what stories really matter. (But yeah, I’ll have a Netflix take later.)

Most Important Story of the Week – Comcast NBC Universal Announces Free Streaming for Comcast/Sky Customers (and ads)

Sometimes, disagreements about the strategy of a company boil down to disagreements over who a company should be targeting with their newest products. For instance, at first, I was really skeptical about Quibi, the short-form, subscription video service. (This was a hold-over from my skepticism for Vessel.) My main criticism is I don’t think it will work on TV sets in living rooms. But that’s not Quibi’s plan: they’re focusing on mobile to reach even-younger-than-Millenials. In that sense, my critique of their distribution strategy doesn’t make sense.

That’s why I thought some of the criticism of Comcast NBC-Universal didn’t make a ton of sense either. (Beyond the criticisms that are just, “If you aren’t Netflix, you have already lost.” I can’t really debate that.) Instead, I think a lot of the criticism compared NBCU’s new plan to Netflix, when first you need to ask, who are they really going after here? Are they they same segment?

To evaluate a strategy fairly–and many times in business we don’t do it fairly–starts with understanding who they are targeting, then judging the tactics based on that plan. Or you explain why they shouldn’t target a given segment. The disingenuous way to do this is to assume a company should target a different segment, then evaluate their tactics in that vein.

With that mini-preamble, who is Comcast NBC-Universal (NBCU from here on) targeting with their latest offering?

This is where it gets tricky, as NBCU has both B2C (business-to-customers) and B2B (business-to-business) masters it is trying to serve. Starting with the customer side, the generous interpretation is that NBCU is trying to focus on customers who haven’t cut the cord yet. Essentially, get them used to streaming by offering it to them for free. (This could also be a different segment entirely, focusing on people who want a free streaming service.) In other words, making a streaming service for older-than-Millennials who already have cable.

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the “TV Everywhere” push of the mid-2010s, just more centralized. TV Everywhere failed because it had too many offerings (an app for every channel and cable company), confusing offerings (5 rolling episodes), no guiding force (every channel was on their own) and lack of in-house technology and data analysis. This deficit extended from NBC Universal to Fox to Disney. That said, the purpose of TV Everywhere made sense. Even if this is just “TV Everywhere on steroids” or “alt-Hulu”, the focus on adding value to the traditional TV bundle could work.

Of course, the second set of masters for Comcast will appreciate this too. That’s all the MVPDs that Comcast risks offending by offering this new streaming service, including it’s own cable/satellite services. The problem plaguing the traditional studios is how to respond to Netflix while not trading streaming revenue (that is actually negative cash flow) while forgoing valuable subscriber fees (that is a huge free cash flow positive). The potential answer from Comcast seems to be a giant punt on the issue, which could be brilliant. If it works–a big “if”–then they’ve essentially cracked the most difficult nut of the whole “traditional studio with network transition to digital” piece.

Further, if “subscribers” are the only metric of performance that matters then with a stroke NBC-Universal can take a lead in the streaming wars. Of course, the skeptic could and will say, “Sure they claim 50 million subscribers, how many use the service?” But neither Netflix, Amazon or Hulu has released Monthly, Weekly or Quarterly users yet. Why should Comcast be the first? In the meantime, we’ll have to triangulate with device installs, Nielsen/Comscore measurements and new subscribers to triangulate. But we won’t know for sure.

(Final note: Using the (3C–STP-4P Marketing Framework for the new conglomerates streaming platforms is a tremendously useful way to look at this problem. That will be fun, and take me weeks to make. Expect it in March or later.)

Data of the Week – The Extremely Ordinary Content Economics of Netflix

Where are my thoughts on Netflix raising prices? Well, my rule of thumb is if I write 2,000 words on something, it becomes its own article. So tomorrow I’ll release my thoughts on the Netflix’s price increase. That would have been a candidate for “Most Important” event in many weeks, but the NBC-Universal announcement bumped it. Earnings reports usually don’t make it in, unless they have ground-breaking news.

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Suspiciously Recurring Numbers and More Implications of The Netflix versus Crazy Rich Asians Debate

(This is the third part of a multi-part series exploring one specific Netflix number. To read the other pieces:

Introducting “Datecdotes”, when Streaming Companies use Data to Win the PR Wars

Did More People Watch Crazy Rich Asians or a Netflix Rom Com Last Summer?

Netflix versus Crazy Rich Asians: What Else Does Netflix “80 Million Customer Accounts Tell Us?)

Okay, enough skepticism. If we take the latest datecdote from Netflix, at face value, what can we learn from it?

Well, to start, let’s take a look at the history of “80 million” in Netflix releases…

What other evidence of “suspicious” numbers do you have?

In a future article, I’ll write about another “theme” of this website called, “Theme X: Be Skeptical”. Especially with competitors. Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt! 

One of the corollaries to that theme relates to data. The corollary is, “Be wary of large, rounded numbers.” Data isn’t often rounded so evenly. This applies to scientific studies, political causes and other social phenomena. Oh, and entertainment success stories.

I’d add, if the same company keeps repeating the same big number that would be weird, right?

Netflix has this problem with their original movies, and I don’t think anyone has pointed this out yet. Researching the “80 million customer accounts” I naturally googled to try to find every news source uncritically repeating this datecdote. Imagine my surprise when the first occurrence of 80 million accounts wasn’t October in the Q3 shareholder report, but actually in June!

See, their “Summer of Love” romantic comedies weren’t the first time they had “80 million customers” watch something. For example…

– In June, Reuters was given data from Netflix that 80 million customers had watched a Netflix Original movie in 2018.

– In June, Dana Feldman on Forbes also reported that 80 million customers had watched a “romance film” on the service. Rereading it, this looks like it includes both originals and licensed films. This came from a Netflix tweet.

Then in their Q3 letter to shareholders, Netflix repeated the 80 million customer accounts number.

Clearly there was some rounding going on. And for press releases or on information provided on background, Netflix is under no obligation to be precise. But let’s assume the numbers are close enough. If the baseline assumption is all Netflix movies combined get 80 million customers accounts involved, the “Summer of Love” films didn’t really boost viewership that much did they? Either for romance films or original films. Eighty million customers is just what big groups of movies promoted by Netflix tend to get.

But if I wanted to be skeptical, I mean, what are the odds that exactly 80 million customers watched an original in from January to June, which is the same number that over the previous year watched a “romance movie” and then, after two more months of Netflix rom-coms being released in the “Summer of Love”, they had all in 80 million customers watch an original romantic comedy? Is that crazy overlap, or three part coincidence?

What if we take all the recurring 80 million customers at face value? What can we learn from this number?

We can triangulate the floor for Netflix “Monthly Active Users”.

This is the biggest way that streaming video distributors, social platforms and subscriptions services in general try to game the narrative. A customer or user includes anyone who “samples” a subscription. So you order from Blue Apron, or start a Hulu free trial, or sign up for SnapChat. Those are all users or customers.

But Monthly Active Users (MAUs) is a much better approximation of who is actually using your service regularly. (Or weekly or daily active users, which are even smaller time periods.) That means actual people you can monetize through ads or monthly billing. With Netflix, we have no clue what their monthly or weekly active users are. Most social platforms include this in their SEC filings. Netflix does not—it isn’t a social platform—and instead focuses on “subscribers”.

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