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Netflix earnings: How much longer can it remain content king?

Daniel Roberts

In the past two years, a whole host of companies have ramped up their streaming video options, from Amazon Prime (AMZN) to YouTube Red (GOOGL) to HBO Now (TWX) to new apps from cable networks. But Netflix (NFLX) is still the undisputed heavyweight king of original content.

Netflix’s first-quarter earnings, which come Monday after the closing bell, will help tell us if the king is in danger of losing that crown. Revenue expectations are extremely high—likely too high.

Analysts are expecting $1.96 billion in revenue, a 24% jump over the $1.57 billion it had in the first quarter of last year. That would be the same percent increase it saw in the first quarter of last year over the first quarter of 2014. And that may be no longer tenable for the streaming giant: growing revenue each quarter as much as it did in the past. Analysts fear the company is approaching a point of saturation in the U.S. market where it can no longer sign up new subscribers at a pace that justifies the company’s stock price.

In his fourth-quarter shareholder letter last January, CEO Reed Hastings didn’t do much to assuage those fears when he said, “Our high penetration in the U.S. seems to be making net additions harder than in the past.” That’s just a fact: some 45 million people in the U.S. subscribe to Netflix, and it will be hard to keep growing that number. Anyone who cares to pay for a streaming service likely already does so. And if it isn’t Netflix, then they’ve chosen a competitor.

Netflix is already seeing subscriber adds slow down: in the fourth quarter of 2015, its net subscriber adds went down to 1.56 million from 1.9 million a year earlier. For this quarter, the company forecast 1.75 million new U.S. subscriber adds.

And there's another wrinkle that may exacerbate the fear of slowing subscriber adds: In May 2014, Netflix jacked up the price of its most popular plan from $7.99 per month to $9.99, but it let existing users go another two years at the old price. This is the month when they will see the $2 increase, and many may still not be aware of the bigger bill coming their way.

Because of the slowing subscriber adds and the increased competition in the space, analysts are expecting earnings to drop, down to 3 cents per share from 5 cents per share (adjusted from 38 cents after its 7-for-1 stock split in June) at this time last year. But Netflix frequently exceeds expectations. Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves, for one, is bullish on the company’s growth potential, because of its international runway. He rates the stock a buy, even though it is down 2.5% this year.

Indeed, global growth has been sunny for Netflix. In January, the company tripled the number of countries it serves, expanding to India, Russia, and others. It is not yet in China, the one nation that could stymie Hastings from his stated goal of being in the “whole world by end of 2016.”

And so the story for Netflix in the U.S. comes down to original content—does it still have the most, and the best? In 2015, it launched more new original series and movies than in any year prior, Hastings said in January. In 2016, it aims to offer 600 hours of original programming, up from 450 hours in 2015. But HBO plans the same volume: 600 hours of original content this year for its HBO Go and HBO Now platforms, a whopping 50% increase on the year before and a sign Time Warner is willing to invest heavily in this area. Amazon, meanwhile, is set to launch its own video-only subscription service that directly challenges Netflix, according to a report today. And even Apple is in this now, after it announced in March it is working on its first original series for Apple TV.

Each of the companies that offers up original streaming content has had their big headline-grabbing hits, like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” for Netflix, and “Transparent” for Amazon Prime. But in the battle for original-content primacy, no single show will win the day for its creator. The ideal is to have the most hits and the largest library. If HBO delivers on its 600 hour promise this year, Netflix no longer wins on volume.

If Netflix does miss revenue expectations on Monday due to subscriber adds, it will be interesting to see what it says to justify the numbers. The last time it disappointed, in the third quarter of last year, when it failed to meet its own prediction for new subscriber adds, it gave a strange excuse: the transition from mag-stripe to chip-based credit cards. Now that it’s been six months since merchants were required to update their point-of-sale systems to accept the chip cards (or risk liability on fraud), it can’t use that claim again.


Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.

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