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Netflix adds fewer-than-expected subscribers

Anita Balakrishnan

Netflix posted first-quarter earnings that beat expectations, and revenue that was in line with analysts' estimates on Monday. But the company added fewer subscribers than expected, and forward earnings guidance fell far short of analyst forecasts.

  • EPS: 40 cents vs. 37 cents per share expected by a Thomson Reuters estimate
  • Revenue: $2.64 billion vs. $2.64 billion expected by a Thomson Reuters estimates
  • Net adds (domestic streaming): 1.42 million vs. 1.56 million expected by a FactSet estimate
  • Net adds (international streaming): 3.53 million vs. 3.71 million expected by a FactSet estimate
  • Number of subscribers (total): 98.75 vs. 98.93 million expected by a FactSet estimate
  • Guidance(Q2 EPS): 15 cents vs. 24 cents a share expected by a Thomson Reuters estimate
  • Guidance (Q2 Revenue): $2.76 billion vs. $2.76 billion expected by a Thomson Reuters estimate

Wall Street dings Netflix on subscriber growth

Shares of Netflix rebounded into positive territory after hours after an initial slump.

The entertainment technology company's results were still way up from a year ago, when it posted earnings of 6 cents per share on revenue of $1.96 billion. But the results fell slightly short even of Netflix's own forecasts of adding 5.2 million subscribers in the first quarter — 1.5 million domestic streamers and 3.7 million internationally.

The company said the 22 percent year-over-year decrease in international subscriber additions was in part "lapping" last year's massive global expansion. It said it expects total subscribers to hit 3.2 million next quarter, well above the 2.45 million expected.

"The subs were a littler light, both domestically and internationally, and that's why I think the stock [was] down," said Michael Graham, ‎managing director and senior internet analyst at Canaccord Genuity told CNBC's " Closing Bell " on Monday. "But I think why it [was] not down even more is because the guidance for subscribers for Q2 were ahead of where our estimates were, where consensus was. I feel like it is just a little bit of lumpiness — they've had this lumpiness before. If the guidance for Q2 was weaker for subscribers, I think the stock would be down more."

Subscriber growth is a key metric for analysts. Domestic growth can signal that the company's core market has yet to mature, analysts said, while the international market has shown the most rapid new growth prospects.

The California-based company is now dumping cash into original content to maintain its dominance over its growing field of rivals. The company's had $423 million negative free cash flow during the quarter, wider than the $261 million negative free cash flow a year ago. Netflix expects to have $2 billion in negative free cash flow this year.

Netflix said in the fall that it plans to spend $6 billion on content this year, above last year's predicted spending from companies like Amazon and CBS. Netflix also said in January it plans to produce 1,000 hours of premium original content this year — even as tech giants like Apple try their hand at original shows.

Still, the company's cash burn has been a concern for some on Wall Street. The company is spending over $1 billion in 2017 just on marketing, and streaming content obligations have swollen to $15.3 billion, up from $12.3 billion a year ago.

"We continue to believe that Netflix cash burn is important and is largely overlooked by investors," Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said in a note ahead of the earnings release.

Though shares whipsawed in extended trading, the reaction paled in comparison to Wall Street's typical volatile reactions to Netflix's earnings — CEO Reed Hastings has even apologized for the stock's volatility in past earnings releases. In 13 of the past 20 of Netflix's quarterly earnings reports, the stock has closed either up or down by 10 percent or more, according to FactSet data .

"We have come to see these quarterly variances as mostly noise in the long-term growth trend and adoption of internet TV," the company said in an earnings release.

Netflix (NFLX)'s stock hit an all-time intraday high at the end of March ahead of earnings. And the company hit some major milestones during the quarter: Dave Chappelle released the company's most-viewed comedy special ever, according to the release. Netflix is also opening the door for chains like AMC and Regal to show their movies, such as Will Smith's "Bright."

A new "thumbs-up-thumbs-down" ratings system has also resulted in twice as many ratings, according to Netflix.

As of last year, Netflix was by far the most-watched streaming service in America, at 52.6 million American households, according to Nielsen (NLSN) data obtained by CNBC . By comparison, Amazon had about 25.2 million homes, Nielsen estimated.

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