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(Bloomberg) -- Netflix Inc. tumbled Wednesday after missing Wall Street’s estimates for subscribers, renewing doubts about its ability to maintain growth as pandemic lockdowns go away and competition intensifies.
The world’s largest paid streaming service added just 2.2 million new subscribers in the third quarter, it said Tuesday. That was well short of the 3.32 million predicted by analysts, as well as the company’s own more conservative projection. Netflix also predicted that it will sign up 6 million new subscribers this period, below the 6.54 million Wall Street estimate.
Netflix shares fell as much as 6% to $494 in New York trading Wednesday. The stock had been up 62% this year through Tuesday’s close, giving the company a market value of $231.7 billion.
Netflix added 25.9 million customers in the first half of the year, its strongest start ever. Yet throughout the pandemic, the company has warned that the subscriber boom wouldn’t last -- and in fact, that its surge in new customers could suppress growth in the future.
“We expected and knew there would be some level of slowdown,” Chief Financial Officer Spencer Neumann said during a video discussion after the results were released.
But predicting subscriber growth in such a climate has proved trickier than ever. While Netflix’s forecasts for the second quarter proved too cautious, its outlook for the third quarter was too rosy.
Many viewers -- especially in Europe and Asia -- have returned to something closer to normal day-to-day life, reducing the amount of time they can spend on Netflix binges. And pro sports have returned to Americans’ TV screens. All of that hampered subscriber gains last quarter, with growth suffering in all three regions.
“It’s the sign of a maturing business,” said Jim Nail, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Infinite growth can’t go on forever.”
It was Netflix’s weakest third-quarter gain since 2015, back when the company wasn’t yet operating in most of the world. In its letter to investors, management blamed a “pull forward” effect: Rapid growth in the first half of the year stole from results in more recent months. The streaming service also warned investors that it would see slower growth in the quarters ahead.
Netflix has still outshined many TV networks and services, which have struggled to find new programming to air during the pandemic. The company has released a full slate of movies, TV shows and documentaries. And through nine months of 2020, the Los Gatos, California-based company has added 28.1 million paid memberships, topping all of last year.
The company is on pace to add 34 million users in 2020, its strongest year of growth ever, and surpass 200 million customers in total.
Movies and documentaries were a bright spot in the quarter. “The Old Guard,” an action film starring Charlize Theron, was its most-watched title in the third quarter, followed by two other features, “Project Power” and “The Kissing Booth 2.” “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” released in September, is on pace to be the service’s most-watched documentary ever.
The performance of its original series was less strong, which may help explain why the company just restructured its TV division. And its most popular shows are still primarily in English, potentially limiting its overseas expansion.
Netflix played down the impact of the pandemic on its pipeline of new shows. The company said it has completed 50 projects since the initial shutdown in production, and it will release more programs next year than it did in 2020.
“We’re confident that we’ll have an exciting range of programming for our members, particularly relative to other entertainment service options,” the company said.
The slowdown in production does mean Netflix will post positive annual free cash flow for the first time in years. Though the company reports a profit, it has still been burning through cash to fund its expansion into new territories and its production of new programs.
While the company said free cash flow will be negative next year, it won’t need to borrow much money anymore. It now has enough cash on its balance sheet to fund its operations for more than 12 months.
For years, critics have said Netflix will run out of money. That danger now appears to have passed. More and more, the company looks like a stable studio -- and increasingly, a dominant force in Hollywood.
“We can safely say we can self-finance our growth without accessing capital markets,” Netflix’s Neumann said.
(Updates with shares in third paragraph.)
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