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Netflix will have to answer what comes next after losing popular shows

Key Points
  • Netflix, which reports earnings Wednesday afternoon, is losing licensed shows to rivals launching their own streaming services.
  • Two of Netflix's most popular shows, "Friends" and "The Office," will leave the streaming service for rivals built by AT&T and NBCUniversal.
  • Still, Netflix has a massive head start in streaming, with nearly 150 million global subscribers. It's unlikely most of the new services will catch up any time soon.
Netflix releases Stranger Things Season 3 trailer.
Source: Netflix

Netflix appears ready to deliver strong quarterly results when it reports earnings Wednesday afternoon, but deeper issues loom as the company grapples with losing some of its most popular shows and movies to traditional media companies that are getting into the streaming game.

The next year will see Netflix facing more competition than it ever has before, with competing streaming services set to launch from Disney, Comcast's NBCUniversal and AT&T's WarnerMedia. That puts even more pressure on Netflix to continue burning cash as it invests in original programming to fill the gap left from some of its most popular licensed shows.

And you can expect that to be one of the biggest topics of discussion when Netflix reports its earnings after the bell: Where does Netflix go without mega hits like "Friends," "The Office" and a broad lineup of "Star Wars" and Marvel movies from Disney?

The latest season of "Stranger Things" may have set new viewership records for Netflix, but it's going to take more than one or two major shows per year to keep subscribers interested.

But first, here are the hard numbers analysts are expecting from Netflix's earnings:

  • Earnings per share: 56 cents expected, according to a Refinitiv consensus estimate
  • Revenue: $4.93 billion expected, according to Refinitiv
  • Domestic paid subscriber additions: 352,000, forecast by FactSet
  • International paid subscriber additions: 4.81 million, forecast by FactSet

The good news for Netflix: It already has a massive head start when it comes to subscribers. While subscriber growth in the U.S. will look relatively small compared with what we'll likely see following the launch of Disney+ this fall, there's still plenty of room to grow internationally. There's almost no chance any of the new streaming competitors will be able to reach Netflix's global scale.

And according to a report by The Information, Netflix's original content team has shifted its strategy to invest in shows and movies that will attract and retain subscribers, instead of throwing everything it can at viewers and hoping something sticks. (As "Saturday Night Live" brilliantly parodied last year.)

That's probably a smart move.

Speaking from my own recent experience, scrolling through Netflix's home screen has started to feel more like channel surfing in the 90s than selecting from a carefully curated list of shows tailored to my tastes. Netflix once prided itself on using its algorithms to suggest things based to watch based on your history and taste. Now it's forcing generic Adam Sandler comedies and "Birdbox" onto your TV.

Compare that to the approach of HBO, which just thumped Netflix when Emmy nominations were announced on Tuesday. While HBO will likely beef up its library under its new owners at AT&T, its selective and curated approach to what it produces each year has resulted in better stuff to watch.

When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his head of content Ted Sarandos speak to investors Wednesday evening, they'll have to prove they can simultaneously produce more hits like "Stranger Things" while keeping subscribers happy with shows that'll fill the holes left by "The Office" and "Friends."

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

Correction: An earlier version included some incorrect references to the timing of Netflix's earnings report and statements by its executives.