Company / division: Netflix
Netflix today kicked off the Q2 earnings season with the first official earnings from a company that I cover, and reported stronger than expected subscriber growth off the back of a House of Cards season launch that was pushed back from Q1. Netflix was way off on its sub growth forecast, and though it surprised on the upside this time around that hasn’t always been the case in several recent guidance misses. Even though Netflix didn’t mention it this quarter, the delayed HoC launch screwed around with lots of year on year comparisons both this quarter and last, since Q1 is usually by far its strongest quarter for subscriber adds and Q2 is usually the low point of the year. Taking a step back, though, Netflix continues on its recent tear, with international growth the major driver, and profits domestically continuing to grow nicely off the back of last year’s price increases. Importantly, Netflix is now projecting that the international business will be profitable on a contribution basis for 2017 as a whole, which will be another major milestone after total non-US subs surpassed US streaming subs for the first time in Q2. The cash flow drain continues to be rapid, with an average of over half a billion dollars per quarter in negative free cash flow over the past year, and over $2 billion in cash content costs in Q2, and $8 billion over the past year, relative to the $6 billion Netflix protected for 2017 on a P&L basis (see this Variety piece I wrote last month for why cash and P&L spending are so different). For now, the subscriber and associated revenue growth are keeping Netflix out ahead of its content spending, but Netflix absolutely has to continue to grow at close to the current rate if it’s to continue to finance massive original content costs and grow profits at the same time.
This is a good time to remind you about the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks Service I also offer, which provides slide decks and videos on roughly a dozen major tech companies including Netflix each quarter during earnings season. Tech Narratives subscribers get a 50% discount, so let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a coupon code. The Q2 Netflix deck is available now, and will be updated in a few days when the 10-Q is out with more data. You’ll find some of the charts in this Twitter thread from earlier.
Netflix and HBO Lead Emmy Nominations (Jul 13, 2017)
Netflix Squeezes Fox Out of Top 4 Must-Keep Viewing Options (Jul 12, 2017)
Netflix Announces Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Shows for Kids (Jun 20, 2017)
Netflix Changes its Wording about Net Neutrality (Jun 16, 2017)
YouTube and Netflix Dominate Teens’ Video Viewing (May 2, 2017)
Netflix Agrees to License Content to Baidu Subsidiary iQIYI (Apr 25, 2017)
Note: this is my first piece of commentary on Q1 2017 earnings. The Q1 2017 tag attached to this post will eventually house all my earnings comments for this quarter, just as the Q4 2016 tag does for last quarter and the earnings tag does for all past earnings comments. Netflix is also one of the dozen or so companies for which I do quarterly slide decks as part of the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks Service. See here for more.
Netflix today reported its earnings for Q1 2017, and the results were mostly good, with a few possible red flags. This year, the new season of House of Cards will debut in Q2 rather than Q1, and that makes some of the year on year comparisons tough. One of the results was much weaker Q1 subscriber adds this year than a year ago in the US, worsening what’s already been a trend of slowing growth for several years. Netflix is projecting something of a recovery next quarter, however. In some ways, the biggest news was the first quarterly profit for the international business, which has neared profitability in the past but been plunged deeper into the red by market expansions every time it did so. Now that Netflix is in essentially every country it can be, that won’t be the case anymore, so although it’s projecting a return to small losses next quarter, it’s now saying it wants to be judged partly on growing revenue and margins globally over time, which is a big shift (previously it wanted to be judged on sub growth and domestic margins only).
There were a couple of mild admissions of failure: customer satisfaction in Asia, the Middle East and Africa is not what it could be, and the company’s Crouching Tiger sequel didn’t achieve its goals for original content. Marketing spend will be up at least a little in 2017, and content obligations continue to grow. The company also made clear that the big free cash flow losses caused by its investment in original content will continue for “many years”, though it also said that it will eventually throw off significant cash when it hits a “much larger revenue base”, giving I think the clearest indication yet of what a long-term project positive free cash flow will be. In the meantime, it will continue to borrow to fund that growth. Domestically, profits are growing very rapidly, and the theory continues to be that eventually the International business will reach that level of maturity too and deliver decent margins. But in the meantime, a bet on Netflix continues to be a bet on continued high growth, something which certainly isn’t guaranteed in the US and may end up being tough long term internationally too.
Netflix: The Monster That’s Eating Hollywood – WSJ (Mar 24, 2017)
The headline here is indicative of the language used by some TV execs in the article, but that rhetoric feels pretty overblown, along with the suggestions that Netflix is somehow singlehandedly doubling the fees actors ask for or squeezing other players out of the business. Yes, both Amazon and Netflix are raising prices for acquisitions of indie movies at Sundance, but no, they’re not having that dramatic effect on the entire industry, not least because they’re still just a fraction of the size of the industry as a whole. The reality is that competition has been intensifying for years because the industry is getting tighter in an age of shrinking audiences and higher standards, and Netflix and Amazon aren’t to blame. Having said all that, the article is likely indicative of a souring of relationships between Netflix and traditional media companies, and if that continues we’ll likely see more content pulled from Netflix and other SVOD services, which just validates Netflix’s massive investment in original content which no-one can take away.
Netflix still has a huge lead in the streaming wars, but Hulu’s smaller service has loyal users (on TV sets) – Recode (Mar 22, 2017)
I added the parenthetical in the headline because that’s the key caveat here, as the piece itself points out. There’s a great chart in here comparing penetration of TV viewing over WiFi by various services with the average hours spent viewing those services in households that use them, and it highlights Netflix’s dominance as both the most popular and most used service within that narrow viewing category. Hulu does well on time spent too, though with far fewer households, while Amazon Video comes bottom of the four, and YouTube has reasonably high penetration but low time spent (again, on TVs in homes). Obviously, all four services can be viewed outside of homes too, and it’s YouTube in particular would score much higher in a mobile-only comparison. But for the other three services, in-home viewing on a TV is a critical segment of the audience, and it’s worth noting the order on that basis: Netflix first, Hulu second, and Amazon third. Sadly, there’s no traditional content in here for comparison’s sake – much higher percentages take pay TV services in the US than any of these services, and time spent is quite a bit higher too. The full Comscore report (linked below) is well worth reading in its entirety – lots of other interesting data points.
Like the recent choose-your-ending report, this is something Netflix is merely experimenting with rather than something it’s going to be releasing imminently. But one of the advantages of commissioning and owning original content is the freedom to do interesting things with it, including chopping it up in different ways for mobile devices. I’m not quite sure how this would work in practice – in general, it’s pretty tough to take content created for one format and make it as compelling in smaller chunks or edited down, and Netflix will likely be best served by creating content specifically for mobile, but we’ll see. It has in the past (and even recently) said that it doesn’t create content with specific screens in mind, but that mindset seems to be changing subtly.
via The Verge
Netflix is seriously ramping up its original content investment, something it’s been talking about for some time. And recent flops notwithstanding, it’s had some really good content over the past couple of years. Now it’s shifting its focus to commissioning and acquiring more and bigger budget movies, and plans to release around 30 in 2017 including some starring big names like Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Tilda Swinton. That number is impressive – none of the major traditional studios or distributors had more than 24 movies in market in 2016 and Disney, for example, will have only eight movies on its slate in 2017. Now, Netflix’s productions are generally smaller budget affairs – it’s acquired movies at Sundance and other film festivals, where the average acquisition price has risen from $2 to $5 million over the past few years but it’s also commissioning some bigger budget films, though nothing in the multi-hundred million range just yet. But this is yet another way for Netflix to set itself apart from Amazon, HBO, and other big names in the subscription video business. As of right now, Netflix has 119 originals slated for future release listed on its website, and 28 of those are films, so its main focus is still on series (each of which will obviously provide far greater total viewing time than a single feature), but movies are going to be increasingly important going forward as part of that mix.
Netflix’s original content has always been a mixed bag – on the one hand, shows like House of Cards won awards (and also won Netflix lots of customers), but on the other there was Marco Polo, which critics panned (it has a 24% score on Rotten Tomatoes) but audiences enjoyed anyway (the corresponding audience score is 93%). Given that Netflix doesn’t release any kind of viewing data, it’s emphasized positive critical response as a validation of its original content, but it’s also defended shows like Marco Polo as being popular with real people even if critics didn’t like them. This new show has done even worse than Marco Polo with critics, but there’s a decent chance audiences will lap that up too. The fact is that any content production is a gamble, and given that Netflix doesn’t use Amazon’s pilot model to select new shows, that gamble is that much larger, especially with a big budget, Marvel-branded show. Only Netflix knows what its internal calculus on what makes a show a success or a failure looks like, but I’m guessing a one-off critical panning won’t do too much damage to its original content strategy. If it starts to become a pattern, however, that would be more worrisome.
via Business Insider
The headline here should be in future, not present, tense – Netflix is only experimenting with this idea for now, not rolling it out to users on its service. For one thing, content has to be created with this objective explicitly in mind, and it will take time to create that content, as well as to create the user interfaces to enable the interactivity which currently doesn’t exist in Netflix. But this does highlight how a digital native platform like Netflix can do things traditional TV companies simply can’t. Whether or not that ends up being compelling for users will depend a lot on the content – I can see this being a novelty at best in the early running until it shows up on some really top notch shows or movies.
There are lots of interesting numbers in this Leichtman Research Group survey, and I just picked one of them for the headline here: that very nearly a quarter of US adults use Netflix every single day. That’s pretty remarkable off the back of under 50 million paid subscriptions in the US. Also worth noting: the vast majority of Netflix viewers (81%) watch Netflix on a TV (by implication, at least sometimes) – this isn’t just people watching on phones and computers, meaning it’s a much more direct substitute for traditional TV viewing. More US households now have Netflix (54%) than have a DVR (53%) for the first time. And there’s lots more here too – the reality is that viewing habits are shifting dramatically, while the underlying spending on pay TV still hasn’t shifted at all, and that’s because many households still feel that traditional pay TV offers either decent value or the only way to get the content they have to have, even if they’re also paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or something else. Somewhere in the next couple of years, that reaches a tipping point – no market has ever gone for too long with a dramatic mismatch between usage and spending – but it doesn’t feel like we’re there yet.
This feels like a somewhat gratuitous use of AI here by Netflix – maybe this is technically AI, but it’s hard to see how it’s not just image analysis. But the broader point here is that this is an often overlooked aspect of Netflix’s differentiation: its technical capabilities in video delivery. Yes, its investments in original content and its massive and rapidly growing scale globally are huge advantages over the competition, but its content delivery networks, compression techniques, and a host of other technical capabilities are also key to making its user experience better. And this is another area where it often feels like it will take competitors a long time to catch up even if they ever decide that’s strategically important.