August 24, 2020
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic Netflix has shattered the odds and competition attracting more new subscribers in six months this year than it did for the entire 2019. The service ended June with more than 190 million subs worldwide.
Retaining those subs is another story — and challenge. While subs flock to market pioneer Netflix in droves, keeping them entertained without a steady supply of fresh content is problematic in a COVID-19 era that has effectively shuttered or significantly slowed content production.
Michael Pachter, media analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, says Netflix has very high levels of consumption per subscriber (an average of 30 to 40 hours per month pre-pandemic and likely 50 to 60 hours per month now). In contrast, most of Netflix’s competitors have much smaller subscriber bases (Disney+ at an estimated 75 million, Hulu at an estimated 35 million, and the other competitors significantly lower). While a high level of consumption is desirable, it drives a need to constantly replenish the content consumed, and Netflix’s extraordinary level of consumption multiplied by its large subscriber base suggests to Pachter that some meaningful percentage of subscribers will drop Netflix before a large quantity of new content can be produced.
Specifically, the analyst believes Netflix could lose upwards of 2 million subs per quarter going forward without a significant return to normalcy within the studio industry to create content. Netflix is projecting 2.5 million new subs in the third quarter (ending Sept. 30), while Wall Street is projecting 5.27 million.
“We suspect that this [sub decline] phenomenon has already begun and led to the company’s lackluster guidance for Q3 net sub additions,” Pachter wrote in an Aug. 24 note. “Once the pace of its delivery of new content begins to wane, we expect Netflix to see higher churn and much slower subscriber growth.”
While production slowdowns affect all streaming video services, with many operating on the studio coat tails of corporate parents, content shortages at NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max are less severe due to their respective deep catalogs of content.
All of Netflix’s competitors are similarly disadvantaged. None will be able to produce content at a meaningfully faster pace than Netflix, and all streaming services will be challenged to produce new content for the first half of 2021. This is likely to create a competitive disadvantage for Netflix, Pachter says, given that the company’s library of owned content is relatively thin, while its competitors have been producing original content for decades.
“Of course, [Netflix] can bid for library content, but its competitors are similarly likely to bid on the same content, driving up the cost of library content and contributing to a return to negative free cash flow next year,” Pachter wrote.
Netflix ended Q2 free cash flow positive for the second consecutive quarter, at $899 million compared to negative $594 million in the previous-year period. Wall Street cares about free cash flow since it is a way of looking at a business’s finances to see what is available for distribution among all the securities holders, including investors.