As the onslaught of new services inevitably diverts viewers’ attention away from the O.G. of streaming, Netflix projects higher churn in the first quarter of 2020. That’s reflected in its forecast of 7 million net new global paid customers, which was lower than the already low estimates Wall Street analysts had made. Next up is the launch of Comcast Corp.’s free, ad-supported Peacock service in April, followed by AT&T Inc.’s HBO Max in May.
None of the new services looks like a true Netflix substitute; they lack the breadth, making Netflix’s $13 monthly subscription look like a better value than being restricted to Disney’s “Star Wars,” Marvel and kids content for $7 a month or Apple’s minimalist library for $5. HBO Max will charge $15, potentially limiting its appeal to those who already used to pay that price for the regular HBO channel. It’s unlikely that Netflix subscribers will permanently cancel in droves. But it is likely that the mere presence of competition will curb Netflix’s ability to raise prices and create a more volatile rate of churn — negatives for holders of exorbitantly valued shares of a business propped up by junk debt. Netflix burned through $3.3 billion of cash in 2019 and expects to go through $2.5 billion this year.
Of course, Netflix is growing quickly in international markets, where it has a head start over rivals. And its debt-fueled investments in content have been successful. The company said that “The Witcher,” a new series based on a video game that’s based on a book, was its most popular first-season show ever, with 76 million member households streaming it in the first four weeks. Netflix also scored dozens of nominations this awards season for hits such as the Martin Scorcese gangster flick “The Irishman.” Losing wildly popular old shows like “Friends” and “The Office” to rivals like AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Comcast’s NBCUniversal, which have reclaimed the rights, doesn’t alter the view that Netflix always has something to watch.
Netflix’s biggest threat is still what it’s always been: its own rising debt and content obligations and an unjustifiably rich stock price.
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Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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