Tag: TV

“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 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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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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