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Netflix faces its final quarter of calm before the streaming wars begin

Key Points
  • Netflix reports its third-quarter earnings results Wednesday.
  • This will be the last quarter before Disney+ and Apple+ debut their streaming services.
  • The big question for Netflix is whether it has become a staple streaming service or if consumers view it as a substitute product.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
Philippe Huguen | AFP | Getty Images

This quarter is Netflix's calm before the storm.

The streaming video giant will report its third-quarter earnings Wednesday for the last time before a slew of competitors debut services that could derail customer growth both in the U.S. and abroad.

Netflix estimates it will add 7 million new paid subscribers for the third quarter. By the time it reports fourth-quarter earnings, both Disney+ and Apple+ will be selling streaming services. By the spring of 2020, NBCUniversal's Peacock and WarnerMedia's HBO Max will also be in the market.

There are two schools of thought on how competition will affect Netflix. The bull case is the "rising tide lifts all boats" option: More streaming services will bolster Netflix's growth by accelerating the transition from traditional bundled pay TV to streaming alternatives.

About 65% of all U.S. households still subscribe to some form of traditional TV, with an additional 29% paying for live TV streaming services, according to a Deloitte survey earlier this year. Deloitte found that the typical U.S. consumer subscribes to three streaming video services, with 43% of consumers also subscribing to a traditional bundled package of live channels.

As Apple+, Disney+, Peacock and HBO Max offer more video options to consumers, the transition away from traditional TV should speed up. This could benefit Netflix, as people will be willing to spend a larger part of their former cable bill on subscription video services.

The bear case for Netflix is that consumers will view new streaming options as replacements, rather than supplements, for Netflix. If consumers don't cancel traditional TV and stick with an average of three additional streaming products, Netflix will now be vying not only with Amazon Prime Video and Hulu but a swath of other options.

Netflix's stock has slumped more than 22% since it reported its last quarterly earnings on July 17. Netflix added just 2.7 million new net subscribers in the second quarter, well below its 5 million estimate. One quarterly miss may not be a big deal, but the company's own reasoning behind the weak results could be ominous — that the "timing of the content slate," in the words of vice president of finance Spencer Wang, played a role.

In other words, Netflix is not essential. Customers will churn off the service if the content isn't strong enough. Netflix executives said they were optimistic that the third quarter will be better because the popular show "Stranger Things" returned with a new season.

In the new world of multiple well-funded streaming services, investors will have to decide: Is Netflix a household staple? Or is it an elastic offering that will see its customer base swing significantly from quarter to quarter based on what hit shows and movies come to the service?

Its share price will depend on the answer. We won't find out this quarter. We'll know a little more by the next one. We'll know a lot more a year from now.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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