Disney+ and other new streaming-TV apps are starting to nip at Netflix Inc’s heels. While that means Netflix will have an even tougher time enticing new users, its streaming imitators aren’t giving subscribers reason enough to cancel the tried-and-true service.
For the first time ever, Netflix has serious competition, and Tuesday’s fourth-quarter results offered a first glimpse at what that might look like. When Walt Disney Co. joined the streaming wars in November, it came in like a wrecking ball, signing up an incredible 10 million users for Disney+ on its first day alone, many of them eager to watch a new “Star Wars” series called “The Mandalorian”. The service, which costs about half as much as Netflix, is estimated to have more than doubled its base since then. That same month, Apple Inc released Apple TV+, with its own flagship series “The Morning Show” boasting an all-star cast led by Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Meanwhile, 548,000 people in North America signed up for Netflix during the period, which is either an impressive feat or a foreboding signal, depending on how you look at it.
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 burnt 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-fuelled 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.