Netflix shares were under pressure Wednesday after North American subscriber growth came in below estimates.
The streaming service added 550,000 U.S. and Canadian subscribers in its fourth quarter, weaker than the 589,000 the company had targeted. Netflix did top earnings and revenue for the period.
Four experts weigh in on what could come next.
Stephen Weiss, founder of Short Hills Capital Partners, is concerned Netflix may have hit a peak in one high-growth market.
"What you've got to question is have you reached a saturation point in the U.S. of subscribers? Who's the marginal subscriber now? Netflix has been around quite some time. However, if you look at it, as you look at a portfolio, they've actually done pretty well with vastly exceeding subscriber growth overall. So, look, I'm not in this stock. I don't foresee myself getting the stock at any point soon. But the foreign growth, which is what they tell you the story is, is impressive."
Bernie McTernan, internet and media analyst at Rosenblatt Securities, explained what's behind volatile stock moves as investors digest the results.
"The 1Q miss for the guidance was bigger than the 4Q beat, and I think that that, combined with expectations, clients that we've spoken to have gotten long the stock after being short it in the summer, so I think those two combinations are why you're seeing the stock [moves]. … It's still a sub[scriber] game, absolutely. What's interesting is free cash flow. They actually reported … or the guidance was negative [$]2.5 billion in free cash flow, which is roughly in line with expectations for 2020. … Over the short term, you see something like Peacock launching, [which] could be in up to 40 million households in the U.S., but Disney+, Apple TV+ all came in lower than expectations, so, that's why we think, really, it's a subscriber game. So, in the U.S. with 60 million subscribers, you're already almost 60% of U.S. broadband households, and then internationally, over 100 million subs internationally. We're just later in the innings now in terms of share gains to go."
Brian Kelly, founder and managing member of Brian Kelly Capital, discusses the company's decision to switch its viewership metrics from 70% of a movie or TV watched to the first two minutes.
"I would argue that if you watched the first two minutes of 'The Irishman,' you didn't need to watch the other three hours of it. So, you got it from the beginning. Yeah, I'm coming at it with fire. But … you don't like to see a company change their metrics when they're going through some competition or some struggles or that type of thing. What concerns me more here is the slowing growth in subscribers coming up. They burned through $3.3 billion worth of cash. They say that's a peak, but their long-term debt is increasing. Now you've got a company that has multiple competitors that are actually online, actually coming in, and I think they are going to take some market share from Netflix, so, for me, it's a no-touch at best."
Tom Rogers, WinView executive chairman, said the company has a bright future.
"I am quite optimistic about the future in Netflix. You've got to remember: they're playing a different game than everybody else. Next year, they're likely to introduce 130 international series. We're talking about a company that is growing globally at close to 30 million subs. Just to put that in perspective, HBO, over the last five years with 'Game of Thrones' – I think, probably once-in-a-decade kind of hot property to have on paid television – grew 4 million subs over the course of that tenure. Netflix is in a very different league than everybody else. The issue, I don't think, is so much, 'Are they slowing because of competition?' Look, people thought they were going to slow because it was going to be binge and disconnect. Find your favorite series, binge and disconnect. That didn't hurt them. Is new competition going to slow them a bit? Maybe, but the real issue is they've hit 60 million, two-thirds of all broadband subs. They're going to continue to grow just based on the demographic trend. We're probably going to see below 80 million cable and satellite households next year for the first time since 2000, 20 years ago. That's a trend of continued disconnect and they're going to benefit from that. Slower growth than they've had, but growth. … I'm talking about growth in the U.S. They will grow with the demographic trend that young people are not taking cable and satellite anymore, younger households are going to continue to take Netflix and streaming services, and as that demo grows older and older, they will continue to benefit from that overall trend. It will not be as fast as overseas, but it will continue to grow. Now, the idea that they're spending overwhelmingly on programming compared to everybody else is absolutely true, but if you do the math and you believe that there are going to be – there are 165 million global subs now – probably 175 million by the end of next quarter, something close to that, although they guided a little lighter, I think it's not hard to see 300 million subs in their future. At $15 RPU globally, which, with the price increases they've taken, you can see that happening. Even spending [$]20 billion a year, 12 billion on originals, you can see this thing throwing off real cash when they hit those kind of numbers."
Disclosure: Peacock is the streaming service of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.