The recent revelation that streaming behemoth Netflix lost subscribers for the first time in more than 10 years stunned Wall Street, spurring a massive sell-off of the company’s stock.
Inflation, subscription price increases, more competition, password sharing, and the war in Ukraine were factors in the surprise announcement in the company’s first-quarter earnings. Still, it forced analysts to ponder whether the media companies going toe-to-toe with Netflix will rethink the billions of dollars they are investing in their own services.
“The business model isn’t as attractive as once thought due to the intensifying competition for time, attention, and consumer spending,” wrote Robert Fishman and Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson in a recent report. The firm recently lowered its target stock price for The Walt Disney Co., Paramount Global, and AMC Networks.
While streaming may not be the shiniest object on the stock market anymore, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Consumers love the convenience, choice, and quality that streaming provides to their TV viewing experience.
But to sustain these services, companies will have to depend more on some of the revenue-generating methods that served the traditional TV business well for decades, such as advertising and the sale of programs to other broadcast and cable outlets after they run on streaming. Even the bundling of streaming services — similar to the way cable packages are marketed — is coming from broadband internet providers.
“What we’re seeing right now is kind of a turning point for all the platforms to realize that just continuing to try to go get new customers by spending a lot of money on original content is eventually going to run out of steam,” said Kevin Westcott, a vice chair and U.S. technology, media, and telecom leader at Deloitte.
Overall growth in streaming continues to be robust. Data from the Convergence Research Group show there were 89 million streaming subscriptions added in the U.S. in 2021, and another 77 million are forecast for this year.
“The numbers are still growing like gangbusters,” said Convergence Research president Brahm Eiley. “It will be a very buoyant business for a long time.”
One reason: consumers continue to ditch or bypass legacy cable TV at a rapid pace. The number of pay-TV subscribers dropped by 6.5 million in 2021, with another seven million expected to cut the cord in 2022.
The growth comes at a high price, with Netflix spending $18 billion on content this year, setting a high bar for the competition. The Walt Disney Co. is committing $11 billion to streaming content, as part of its overall $26 billion budget for TV and film production.
Several executives at Netflix’s competitors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say they are keeping their foot on the gas when it comes to spending. They added millions of subscribers in the same quarterly period that Netflix saw declines. (Warner Bros. Discovery picked up three million subscribers for HBO Max in the first quarter of 2021, while Paramount Global netted 6.8 million for its services.)
Of course, any notion of cutting back on program expenses comes with the risk that other rivals will not let up. Disarmament does not appear to be an option.
“Indeed, if one company did decide to individually pare back on spending, there is no clear case that others will indeed follow — especially the likes of Apple and Amazon,” Fishman and Nathanson wrote.
Eiley noted that major media companies can afford to be patient, as they don’t expect their streaming operations to be profitable until 2024 or 2025.
Still, there are limits. Warner Bros. Discovery shuttered CNN’s streaming service just days after taking ownership of the network, as the newly merged company did not want the hundreds of millions in costs on its books.
Companies now are looking to provide alternative revenue sources to ensure hikes are not the only route to growth.
Netflix customers have grown accustomed to watching shows without commercials. But some might be willing to put up with ads in return for a subscription offered at a lower price, which Netflix co-chief executive Reed Hastings said is now under consideration. The streamer said it was testing features that would allow its subscribers in Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru to add up to two users outside of their household, for an additional $2 or $3 per account.
In the U.S., about 60% of customers surveyed by Deloitte said they would prefer an ad-supported streaming option, Westcott said, noting that cost is a top reason why people cancel a streaming service.
Peacock, HBO Max, and Paramount+ already have ad-supported versions of their services and Disney+ has announced plans to launch a similar tier as well. Amazon has rechristened its free ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV as Amazon Freevee.
Product placements are already making their way into streaming shows. Amazon’s presentation also touted how advertisers can have their wares digitally inserted into existing programs.
Another change: Executives expect Netflix and others to start selling programs to cable and broadcast channels, rather than keeping them behind a subscription paywall indefinitely.
“You have to be able to sell your shows,” said a veteran TV executive who works for one of the streaming companies. “One company can’t take on all of the cost of these shows.”
Public enemy No. 1 for streaming services is customers canceling their subscriptions.
Younger, technologically savvy consumers are more apt to quickly cancel plans after their favorite series airs, and then join a rival service, analysts said. The average churn rate in the U.S. is 37% and is even higher for Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2007) and millennials (people born between 1983 and 1996) at 50%, according to Deloitte.
Streamers are also adding more pieces of entertainment to be included with a subscription.
For example, Netflix has been investing in mobile games and has acquired several game-related companies. Churn rates on game subscriptions tend to be lower than video, in part because younger generations of consumers enjoy interacting with people on games and they build their social circles around that, Westcott said.