Lower subscriber growth could hurt Netflix's first quarter earnings, analysts warn

Key Points
  • Consensus estimates for Netflix Q1: revenue $2.64B, EPS $0.38, 5.3m subscriber adds
  • Subscriber growth expected to be lower than recent quarters due to weak original content
  • Cash burn on original content also a concern for some analysts
Netflix growing international subscribers but Amazon heats up competition: Analyst

Analysts are cautiously positive about Netflix's first quarter, granted they hit subscriber growth expectations.

Netflix will report its first quarter earnings after the closing bell on Monday. It is expected to have $2.64 billion in revenue, marking about 35 percent year-over-year increase according to a Thomson Reuters consensus estimate. Earnings per share is estimated at $0.38.

Netflix's stock success has been mostly based on its ability to add paid subscribers. The company is expected to announce it added 5.3 million subscribers during the first quarter, marking a slowdown from 7.1 million last quarter and 6.7 million the year prior. Growth is expected mostly from international viewers, while the U.S. market cools as it reaches subscriber saturation.

"Our quarterly U.S. subscriber survey suggests potentially weak Q1 U.S. results, though we acknowledge strong international results, which is the bigger current investor focus, may trump U.S. weakness," Baird analyst William Power said in a report. "However, with expectations for a strong overall quarter already high, we'd still be cautious into Q1 results. Though the quarter included several solid new shows, it seemed to lack a strong universal new hit, which may have contributed to the weaker survey results."

MKM Partners analyst Rob Sanderson pointed out in a note Netflix's original content slate during the fourth quarter was relatively weak, including shows like "A Series of Unfortunate Events," stand-up comedy specials from Dave Chappelle, and the critically-panned "Iron Fist."

However, there is hope the second quarter will get a higher subscriber boost. Shows like "13 Reasons Why" released during the first quarter have been topping social media mentions, and fan favorites "House of Cards" and "Orange is the new Black" are returning, Sanderson said.

But Netflix will also have to face more competitors in the over-the-top (OTT) TV space, or TV service that is not reliant on cable or satellite services. Google is launching its YouTube TV service this year, and Hulu will also have an OTT service out this year. Dish Network and AT&T, through DirecTV, are also bolstering their offerings. Meanwhile, Amazon has also increased its original content.

And, increasing premium programming also means that Netflix will have to spend more on content. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said the company is expected to spend $7 billion in content in 2017, up from $6 billion in 2016.

"We continue to believe that Netflix cash burn is important and is largely overlooked by investors," Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said in a note. "As the cost of content continues to be bid up, we expect Netflix to continue to burn cash to fund its acquisition of original and exclusive content."

Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal is an investor in Hulu.