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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Read My Latest at Athletic Director U and My Database for Sports Media Rights Deals

Today, I published a guest article for Athletic Director U looking at the value of sports media rights deals across professional, amateur and college athletics have grown over time. Take a read!

Moreover, for the first time, I’m sharing my work. I had so many links that I couldn’t fit them in the article. Plus, I thought this may be a nice tool for ADs and their ilk to use. Here is the link to the Excel document with my references for sports media rights over time:

ADU Media Rights

Most Important Story of the Week – 27 Sep 19: Discovery Enters the Niche Streaming Business

Well, we got more Spider-Man news. He’s back at Disney! Hurray! Get ready for 2,000 words on superheroes and…

…I can’t do it. Thankfully, another conglomerate launched another streaming network. As buzzy as Spidey is, he really only moves the needle so much. Let’s talk niche streaming. 

(And apologies for the slight delay. Had some data intensive articles last week so it took the weekend to digest the news.)

The Most Important Story of the Week – Food Network Launches Another Niche App

Right off the bat, I both love and hate this new streaming service from Food Network. Before we start, let’s summarize what I know about the company to set our terms.

– Distribution: iOS, Android and FireTV. Of the latter, it will have an “exclusive” voice partnership.

– What: A cooking app, with live cooking shows and other on-demand recipes. Eventually it will have a live call-in help service.

– Price: $7

– Other Tidbits: You can order recipes directly from the app using Amazon Fresh, Instacart and others. 

– The “pitch”: The Peloton of food

In short, I love the focus on customers and the attempt at a new experience. What I hate is that this plan relies on a few economic mistakes. 

The “love” part comes from a few things. To start, having a target segment is always right, even if you eventually need to expand to all consumers. (And you do if you can’t price discriminate in content.) Does Food Network Kitchen know who their audience is? With this application it’s people who like to cook. As the streaming wars start in earnest, niche services will have a tougher time than broadly appealing service, but if you are niche, at least have a clearly defined audience. Both Food Network Kitchen and BET+, for example, do that. That’s good.

Next, while they clearly have a strong partnership with Amazon, it isn’t exclusive when it comes to distribution. (Except for “voice interactivity”.) When I first read the headlines, I thought this wasn’t the case, and honestly if your streaming service is exclusive to any device/OS, well that’s the end of your service. (Microsoft Studios is the case study here.) This new app will be distributed on all the tablets that matter (Apple and Android) and the ones that may in the future (Amazon). 

What’s not to love? Well, the economics. In this case, it’s pricing models. Frankly, Netflix has set the perception of the value of a streaming video service at rock bottom. (Even as their prices have surreptitiously raised over time.) More importantly, they did this with a “library” of content that is broadly appealing. It’s still a bundle, it’s just their bundle. And that even includes cooking shows!

The inclusion of cooking shows on Netflix makes sense. No single cooking show or channel is worth it on it’s own, but they make the bundle as a whole more valuable. For years, I wasn’t watching anything on Food Network, but now I’m back on the Alton Brown Good Eats train. Would I subscribe to this service just for that by itself? Probably not, but it keeps from any bundle that doesn’t have cooking shows.

But that’s like, “Just your opinion, man”. Sure. To put this in context this, look at the landscape of recent subscriptions across a range of categories. Essentially, $5 is the new barrier to entry to get into streaming anything…

Table 1

Besides Luminary–another biz model I’m skeptical on–Food Network Kitchen has the most niche, smallest library in comparison. If you’re looking at all these things that cost about the same, why would you add Food Network Kitchen, if it seems like a much worse value?  If I needed another data point, I’d point to the subscription fees.

According to Dan Rayburn’s website, Food Network is a $1.75 proposition right now. On say 80 million households. If you quadruple the price, you need the audience to only decay to 25% (20 million people). Worse, what if the $7 launch price needs to go up to truly sustain the model? It only makes it harder to justify the economics. 

The counter is that this is the “premium add-on” to the Food Network experience that the truly devoted fans will sign up for. This is a compelling case; it’s a way to partially “price discriminate” for Food Network viewers. Regular fans will watch Food Network on cable or vMVPD. For the hardcore fans, they can get a ton of new content. The challenge is defining “hardcore”. If hardcore is 1% of your audience–and Food Network reaches 90 million poeple, but doesn’t have nearly that many watching–than that’s not a lot of people. 

Then you ask, “Does this premium segment even exist?” Food Network is barely about cooking anymore. It’s cooking competition shows. And baking competition shows. And diners? It turns out that entertainment is the important part, not cooking. 

Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Trust me, at this point I can hear those of you touting a hidden business model:

Licensed merchandise, right?

I’ve written on this twice before, the entertainment press and commentariat tends to drastically overstate the value of licensed merchandise. (Here and here.) First, the actual revenue a studio/network partner makes is pretty small. It’s about 5% of the total revenue of a product. If you hear projections of a firm doing $1 billion in total licensed merchandise sales, they only get $50 million of that. Which is great! And what Star Wars, Marvel and Mickey Mouse do. But is Food Network Kitchen going to generate $1 billion in total retail sales to get $50 million to run everything?

Probably not.

I’d call licensed merchandise the world’s narrowest content funnel. Especially for adults. Even more for household goods. Frankly, for all the Game of Thrones fans, only a few ever plopped down their credit card and bought things. Honestly, it’s probably 2-10% of fans. Say those numbers apply to Food Network Kitchen: 

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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: Netflix Is Five Guys and Hulu Is McDonald’s: How Hamburgers Can Help Explain The Streaming Wars

In case you missed it, my latest is up over at Decider. The title may sound a little silly, but I’ve been mulling on how all the streaming services are trading off price, quality and quantity as the streaming wars get kicked off in earnest this fall. And I loaded it with information on price, number of shows and other good tidbits.

It also features probably my favorite table I’ve made this month…

image-5-price-per-1000-episodes

Most Important Story of the Week – 20 Sep 19: The WGA Keeps Their Power

Between a host of streaming TV news–Peacocks, Portals and Seinfelds oh my–and old fashioned business news–AT&T!!!–this week felt like we had a lot of options for the biggest story of the week. But let’s avoid the big conglomerates to talk about the behind-the-scenes heroes, the writers.

(Programming note: between a music festival last weekend and house guests this week, I should have taken the week off. Check out my latest guest article at Decider “Netflix is Five Guys and Hulu is McDonalds: How Hamburgers Explain the Streaming Wars”. Seriously, who else will call Disney+ the In-and-Out of the streaming wars? Otherwise, more regular writing next week.)

The Most Important Story of the Week – The WGA Stays the Course

The “news” is that David Goodman was reelected as President of the WGA West, the guild (union) responsible for TV and film writers. The margin was fairly healthy and the election shattered records.

Why is this news? Well, a slate of other writers had run against Goodman–mainly backed by Phyllis Nagy–hoping to return to the negotiating table with the agencies (and, in my opinion, likely cave on packaging fees). Goodman and team have been negotiating individually with agencies, to some degree of success. Nagy was backed–and this is important–by mainly showrunners. 

To divert from usual–where I give my take, then provide articles to “read more”–let’s flip that. In the last few weeks, three long reads/listens prepared me for today’s column. Taken together, they really do illuminate the battle lines for this conflict.

– KCRW’s “The Business” with “Dueling” Interviews on “The Battle for the WGA” with Kim Masters

LA Review of Books, “A Fight in Hollywood” by Alessandro Camon

Variety, Why the WGA-Agents Battle Has Yet to Significantly Impact TV Dealmaking by Michael Schneider

A line stuck out to me from The Business podcast but Angelina Burnett. In her words, negotiations are about power and who has it. Being “friendly” or “reasonable” doesn’t matter if you don’t have the power. In my experience, um, yep! Understanding this fact probably explains why the writers and agencies have been and will be at it for a while.

Historically, the agencies have the power. Especially the big three really of CAA, WME and UTA. They know they can leverage the power their gradual consolidation gave them into bigger projects for their client, and bigger paychecks for themselves. (By the way, the idea that negotiations are all about power is the life blood of agencies, so they shouldn’t be too upset by this take.) As a result, they’ve tried less and less hard to get all the writers paid. Partly because it’s gotten harder to negotiate with similarly consolidated media conglomerates.

But then all the writers fired their agents. They were pretty fed up and that was a power move. As long as the WGA stuck together. The only bid really the agencies had to stop this was to turn the writers against each other, which they tried to do. Especially by focusing on the showrunners, who the big three agencies tend to represent. But this week showed that the writers really are behind their union’s push to end packaging fees. 

Well, mostly behind it. There is that 10% or so of the WGA that are showrunners and are fine with packaging fees. (And the group they convinced to vote with them.) And this divide between the top 10% of the guild and the bottom 90% is why this fight really does stand in for current American politics/economics and why it will drag on. (Go to the LA Review of Books article by Camon for that great take.)

At the end of the day, if packaging fees end, the showrunners–who currently don’t have to pay 10% of their earnings–will essentially see a “tax” on their earnings. Of 10%. That’s a lot! If Shonda Rhimes makes $250 million on her overall deal, that’s $25 million she’d have to pay her agents. Really, that’s the trade off for the agencies: collect packaging fees and don’t take 10% of showrunner salaries, or vice versa. But that money still comes from somewhere, and that likely meant lower salaries for newer writers over time.

That’s why KCRW had such a tough time finding a candidate running for the WGA board to come on the show.  Or any of the showrunners who signed the letter backing that slate. It’s hard to get millionaires to go public with the idea that they want to keep not paying taxes on their millions. Again, that’s a hard position to defend, the way defending lower taxes for millionaires is increasingly harder in today’s economy. And usually the defenders of “lower taxes” find tertiary issues to argue over instead (taxes are pro-growth or the rival WGA slate wanted “reasonableness”.)

Looking at this through the economics/strategy lense, I keep coming back to those millions of dollars. And that’s why I don’t see this stalemate ending. When it comes down to taking millions of dollars, well the folks you’re taking it from will fight back. 

The ironic part is that the Hollywood business as usual train keeps businessing as usual. That’s the point of the Michael Schneider piece and really what could end this conflict. Shows need to keep being made–and making money–so people will do that work. Including some smaller tier agencies. Or manager or entertainment lawyers or even showrunners themselves. Even if the networks worry about a slowdown, at the end of the day, they’ll get business done if they have to. Which comes back to the power issue. If you lose your power–and the WGA didn’t get lose any, but the agencies may have–then it gets a lot harder to negotiate.

M&A Updates –  AT&T Has an Activist Investor

Let’s see if I get the last week of AT&T stories right…

– Last week, AT&T announced further subscriber declines, even larger than last quarter.

– An activist hedge fund publishes an open letter calling for changes at AT&T.

– The hedge fund also leaks it wants DirecTV sold and doesn’t want John Stankey succeeding to the CEO spot.

– Then there is a shareholder class action lawsuit over fake DirecTV Now accounts.

– AT&T in response hires Goldman Sachs to defend itself.

– AT&T backs Stankey, but then news leaks that even more folks are leaving HBO in the next few months.

– This morning, AT&T actually considers selling DirecTV. By the afternoon, no they aren’t.

That’s just the last week.

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Most Important Story of the Week – 13 September 2019: Debunking Some Apple Myths

This is my third try writing this week’s column. Apple TV+ is clearly the “most important story” this week since it’s Apple’s entry into the streaming wars. That’s like the United States entering World War II. What did my first two takes look like?

Attempt 1: An article about “ecosystems”, since that was the explanation du jour of the week. I wrote too much for this column.

Attempt 2: Really calling folks out for not digging into Apple’s financials. But that required me to do them too, which took too long for this week’s column. That’s an analysis article.

Still, I had so many thoughts on Apple that we’ll have enough for thoughts on Apple TV+/Channels today and in the future. Don’t worry.

(Programming note: I’m traveling for a music festival—Kaaboo 2019, the film festival for the middle-aged. Seriously, that’s how the bill it—so if I make any mistakes, I was rushed. And I’ll have my newsletter next week! Sign up now!)

Most Important Story of the Week – Debunking Some Apple TV+ Myths

Reading the coverage of Apple TV+’s pricing announcement, the media ecosystem swung from “$10 is way too expensive” to “$5 wins the content wars” immediately. That sort of surprised me. Bit of an overreaction, wouldn’t you say? Along the way, too, I noticed a lot of observers leveraging a lot of the same explanations and even numbers to explain the news. 

Let’s debunk a couple of those. Plus, I’ll add in the strategic risks for Apple implied by these mistakes. First, though, a new product that actually does make sense.

Apple Arcade Solves a Customer Problem: No in-app purchases

I play a few more iPad games then I probably want to admit. I loath pay-to-play, though. Just not how I was brought up to play games and the best games don’t feature this mechanic, in my opinion. Apple Arcade, their subscription video game service, solves this problem. Potentially. Right now, they probably don’t have enough games to warrant a subscription, but like all new businesses it will grow. And I hate subscription biz models anyways (for customers). So we’ll see. 

However, compared to Apple TV+, at least Arcade solves a customer need. Now how many customers are like me–which is market sizing–is a future question. But at least it solves a problem; it isn’t clear that folks were clamoring for more TV to subscribe to.

Debunking One: Apple TV+ is free. 

This is kind of true, in that yes, if you buy an Apple device, the service is free. But I saw tons of folks saying this free first year meant that Apple made it essentially free. That’s too far.

After a year, customers will need to start paying. I assume some others assumed that if customers buy multiple devices, they can keep stacking on year long free trials, but that doesn’t sound like any free trial I’ve ever seen. Most likely, after a year, the device that logged the free 12 months will have to start paying. And that, my friends, is where the true test of a business starts.

Strategic Risk for Apple: The Promotional Carousel Is Hard to Get Off.

Ask DirecTV or Hulu how offering ridiculously low prices worked for customer churn. Even if Apple doesn’t report subscriber numbers—they probably won’t—we’ll be able to tell by the discounts Apple does or doesn’t offer whether or not churn is happening.

Debunking Two: Apple will have 250 million potential customers.

This number is in fact true. It’s roughly how many iOS devices Apple sells per year. Roughly. The implications are not.

But is number of devices really the potential market? Consider two things. First, many families are on Apple’ plans. Which means even if the family owns four devices, or bought four, they’re still only subscribing once. More critically, look at this chart from Business Insider on iPhone sales.

58d04a02112f701f008b57db-750-563

Huh. So the US portion is really 70 million phones per year, with another chunk of iPad and laptops, which I didn’t see reported anywhere. Everyone breathlessly went with the 250 million. Sure, Apple TV+ is launching in 100 countries, does that include China? It’s notoriously hard to launch content in China, and Netflix and Amazon aren’t there. So I’m skeptical. Overall, if you’re discussing Apple’s plans, be very careful about mixing up US-focused strategies and global numbers.

(Bonus chart. During research, I found this amazing chart at Asymco. It should look familiar.)

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