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For Netflix, better-than-expected isn't good enough

Daniel Roberts

With competition heating up in the streaming-video race, expectations for Netflix are higher than ever. On Monday, its first-quarter earnings met many of those expectations, but not all.

Netflix (NFLX) beat expectations on earnings per share (EPS), and beat expectations for new subscriber adds, in both the U.S. and abroad. But it missed expectations on revenue, and its stock plummeted 13% in after-hours trading, a sign that these mostly-extremely-good results still aren't good enough.

Earnings per share came in at 6 cents, vs. analyst predictions of 3 cents. That's higher than at this time one year ago, when it reported 5 cents per share. On revenue, analysts predicted $1.97 billion in revenue, which would have represented a 24% jump over the first quarter of last year—a tall order. Netflix fell short, but only barely, reporting $1.96 billion in revenue.

New subscriber adds is arguably the biggest story here: Facing expectations of 1.82 million net new subscribers in the U.S., it smashed that, adding 2.23 million. It is a sign that the potential runway for Netflix to bring on new customers in the U.S. is still nice and roomy. For international, on expectations of 4.49 million new subscribers it added 4.51 million. However: Netflix lowered guidance for new international subscriptions next quarter, predicting only 2 million net additions, on analyst estimates of 3.45 million. Considering the company just launched in 130 new countries, that isn't good enough, and shareholders understandably wonder why the service isn't more popular abroad.

In his shareholder letter, CEO Reed Hastings wrote something candid that perfectly summarizes Netflix's challenge moving forward: "If you think about your last 30 days, and analyze the evenings you did not watch Netflix, you can understand how broad our competition really is. Whether you played video games, surfed the web, watched a DVD, TVOD, or linear TV, wandered through YouTube, read a book, streamed Hulu or Amazon, or pirated content (hopefully not), you can see the market for relaxation time and disposable income is huge, and we are but a little boat in a vast sea."

He's being somewhat facetious. Netflix is more than a little boat in the sea of streaming video; it is the captain of the largest ship.

But Amazon (AMZN) took a shot across Netflix's bow on Monday when it announced it would begin offering a video-only subscription service. It will also offer a monthly option for Amazon Prime (the service was previously only available as a full-year service). Meanwhile, earlier this year Time Warner-owned HBO (TWX) declared its intention to offer 600 hours of original content in 2016, the same total hours that Netflix offers.

It was only a few short years ago that Netflix stood basically alone in the original-content battle. Now, with not just Amazon and HBO but also Hulu, and Apple (which is working on its first original series for Apple TV) in the same game, customers can afford to be fickle and jump ship from one plartform to another.

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In a casual Twitter poll today we shared with Yahoo Finance readers, I asked which platform has the best original content: Netflix, HBO, Hulu or Amazon. More than 600 people voted. Netflix won, but it was no landslide: 55% said Netflix, 38% went with HBO, and a healthy 5% chose Amazon. It is further evidence that HBO looms large for Netflix on the competitive landscape.

Expectations are now so high on Netflix that beating estimates just barely is now unsatisfying to Wall Street.


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

Read more:

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

Why Facebook, Google and Amazon are all bidding to stream NFL games

How Pluto aims to bring TV to the Internet