Netflix reported disappointing domestic and international results for Q2 ’16, extending the company’s bumpy and unpredictable growth. Netflix added just 160K subscribers domestically (down from 900K in Q2 ’15, a quarter which now looks like it was an anomaly after all) and below its own 500K forecast. Meanwhile international subscribers increased by 1.52 million (vs. 2.37 million in Q2 ’15) and below the company’s forecast of 2 million additions.
In both cases, Netflix blamed price increases that were felt as “un-grandfathering” of older subscribers kicked in, which in turn led to higher churn. In the U.S. Netflix went one step further, blaming press coverage of the un-grandfathering process, which it believes led some subscribers to believe a new price increase was coming.
Because Netflix no longer reveals actual churn rates, nor gross additions (which it said were still “healthy”), it’s extremely difficult to assess more deeply what happened in the quarter. Domestically, the $2 price increase was announced in May, 2014, with existing subscribers’ rates frozen for 2 years. In that time, Netflix content choices (particularly originals) have burgeoned. So a higher churn rate for a better service that’s still comparatively inexpensive by pay-TV standards makes Netflix’s subscriber loyalty look surprisingly fragile.
Internationally it’s an even bigger head-scratcher because just 7 months ago Netflix flipped a switch that enabled the service in 130 additional countries. So in the first full quarter with all these new addressable prospects (not to mention theoretically increasing momentum in prior international markets), for subscriber additions to fall by 36% is really eye-opening.
While Netflix maintained that neither market saturation nor competition influenced the Q2 results, it’s awfully hard to believe these aren’t in play. Domestically, Amazon’s video offering has markedly improved over the past year and its bundling into Prime no doubt creates the perception for many that it’s free. With 75% of Prime users now watching video too, at a minimum Amazon is competing for time spent watching video with Netflix and others (though Netflix maintains linear TV is the primary target of reduced viewing).
Another important factor to keep in mind is that since Amazon launched its Streaming Partners Program (“SPP”) in late 2015, more high-quality SVOD services (e.g. Showtime, Starz, Acorn TV, etc.) are being promoted to Amazon’s massive user base and are now just one click away. With frictionless unsubscribing to Netflix, no doubt some budget-minded and net-savvy Netflix subscribers are spinning out to spend time with other SVOD services. Back in December, I cautioned that SPP could be very disruptive to Netflix and we could well be seeing its early impact.
Similarly, at 47.1 million domestic subscribers, it’s hard to believe there isn’t some saturation beginning to occur. Because Netflix is opaque with gross additions and churn, it’s anyone’s best guess what the trends really are. Keeping in mind that “trees don’t grow to the sky,” it was inevitable that Netflix’s growth would slow.
The big question is what happens from here. While the domestic slowing was to be expected the international slowdown is very concerning. International was always going to be a harder road given intense local competition and particular local tastes. But if international subscribers don’t dramatically pick up, then Netflix’s whole international growth story will be open to question. Netflix could be maturing domestically and facing strong competition, while not achieving the expected ramp-up internationally. That would be a serious double-whammy that could slam the brakes on Netflix’s rapid growth.