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Netflix's results and executive comments show it's just another media company — not a pay-TV killer

Key Points
  • Netflix blamed its subscriber losses on its weak second-quarter content.
  • In the past, Netflix has talked about competition in terms of "sleep" and "Fortnite."
  • The results and executive comments demonstrate a more focused way to view Netflix — as one of many global entertainment options.
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Netflix fell far short of new subscriber expectations—What's next?

As Netflix's stock soared over the past couple years, investors and consumers wondered how to think of the company's long-term role in the media ecosystem.

The latest quarterly results should make it easier to define Netflix, but the answer may not be as ambitious as some had hoped.

It's easy to get wrapped up in Netflix's grand successes and project aspirations on the company that may be too grandiose. After all, Netflix vanquished Blockbuster, its first foe. It zoomed by HBO in global subscribers, its second target. It's only natural to think about whom Netflix may be coming after next — and the company's own language around competitive landscape fueled those fires. Netflix has listed sleep and Fortnite as recent competitors.

But listening to Netflix executives speak Wednesday after reporting net customer additions that drastically fell short of analyst estimates and the company's own guidance, there was no talk of sleep and Fortnite.

Instead, the company's leadership spoke pragmatically about making better shows and movies to draw an audience.

"We're just going to continue to focus on our strategy of developing more and more original programming," said Netflix Chief Financial Officer Spencer Neumann. "There will be some quarter-by-quarter choppiness along the way based on things like seasonality and content slate."

That's the kind of language you'd hear from someone who works at HBO. It is not the kind of language you'd hear from someone at a cable operator, which historically has offered sweeping society-wide justifications like "college ended" to explain why pay-TV signups fell. Netflix hasn't attained that level of assumed ubiquity.

Sarandos: Netflix is not about 'anything, anytime'

The recent decisions by NBCUniversal to pull "The Office" from Netflix in 2021, and by WarnerMedia to remove "Friends" in 2020 were clear indicators of Netflix's limitations.

Netflix is just one of many channels that provides you with entertainment — not a competitor to the entire pay-TV ecosystem. As much as Netflix may want to consume all of your leisure hours, content chief Ted Sarandos sounded pretty sober about not being able to do that.

Speaking of losing popular shows, Sarandos said Netflix has seen "content come and go on the site" before. The antidote, he said, is to make early investments in original programming that get "our consumers and our members much more attuned to the expectation that we're going to create their next favorite show, not that we're going to be the place where you can get anything every time."

There it is. "Not that we're going to be the place where you can get anything anytime." That's a pretty straightforward statement.

He continued, "We think there's more value in that proposition" — creating people's next favorite show — "than there would be in being a low-priced aggregator."

None of this is a change for Netflix, which never said it was gunning to replace cable TV entirely or be your only source of entertainment. But the company's ambitious comments about competition and wild growth may have led people to see Netflix for something it isn't.

Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris, who moderated Netflix's conference call Wednesday, pointed out the company hasn't discussed content driving "cyclicality" in subscriber numbers in the past. In other words, this was the first time Netflix has said its programming may be what makes customers sign up for its service.

But of course it is! It's just that Netflix has been so relatively cheap compared with U.S. pay TV, and so new in other countries, that the growth story has overshadowed the obvious — that Netflix needs to give customers great content for their money.

This quarter, Netflix says its content wasn't good enough. Moving forward, consumers and investors won't take programming for granted again.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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