Netflix reported eye-popping Q2 ’17 results late yesterday, adding a total of 5.2 million subscribers (1.07 million domestically and 4.14 million internationally). These greatly exceeded the company’s own guidance (which it says is the same as its internal forecast) of 600K domestically and 2.6 million internationally for Q2 ’17. As a longtime Netflix observer, here are my 5 takeaways from the Q2 ’17 results:
1. Determining where Netflix is on the S curve of adoption is harder than ever
When Netflix added 900K domestic subscribers in Q2 ’15, significantly breaking out of a narrow and much lower range of Q2 domestic additions over the prior 3 years, I wrote that it was possible Netflix had bent its “S curve” (which measures the rate of adoption of new technologies) and may have be on the cusp of renewed domestic growth. But then in Q2 ’16, domestic growth screeched to a halt, with just 160K subscribers added, its worst-ever Q2.
Now we have Q2 ’17, which stands as the best Q2 domestic growth since the halcyon, pre-Qwikster days of Q2 ’11 when Netflix added 1.8 million domestic subscribers. In short, the history of Netflix’s Q2 results could give you whiplash. Notwithstanding what Netflix says (see #2 below) and because the company has long since stopped reporting churn, It has become nearly impossible to really understand what drives Netflix’s results in an individual quarter.
Is Netflix on the cusp of another growth spurt, or is it just another small subscriber price increase away from hitting a wall? Who knows.
2. Netflix says original content is translating into subscriber growth, but again, who knows
In its quarterly letter to shareholders, Netflix said “we underestimated the popularity of our strong slate of content which led to higher-than-expected acquisition across all major territories.” Fair enough that Netflix got 91 Emmy nominations last week, but most of these shows had been available long before the second quarter, so it’s a little murky whey they’d all of a sudden have such a big impact. On the other hand, as Netflix said, it did launch many new seasons in Q2, as well as comedy special, documentaries and films.
It’s also worth noting that as recently as May, industry research revealed that 85% of all Netflix’s U.S. streams were actually licensed, not original content. In fact, just 3 licensed shows, “The Office,” “Family Guy” and “Friends” accounted for over 21% of all Netflix streams. Netflix now has nearly $20 billion of programming obligations so there is a huge incentive to message to Wall Street that these investments are justified; but again, who knows if they truly are.
3. Jeff Bezos may be right, people will subscribe to multiple SVOD services, so Amazon Prime isn’t hurting Netflix (yet)
A big open question in the SVOD industry has been whether Amazon’s aggressive foray into video (which is included in the cost of Prime), would, at some point, eat into Netflix’s growth. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has insisted that won’t be the case and that people will subscribe to multiple SVOD services. Recent research from Parks Associates indicated that over 50% of broadband homes do indeed take multiple services.
With Netflix’s strong Q2 results, the multiple service thesis appears gains some validation. How this plays out in the long-term is still an open question. But for now, it appears Amazon’s billions of dollars of investments in video are not yet adversely impacting Netflix’s appeal.
4. Despite international competition, growth jumps to new highs
Impressive as the domestic additions were, the international ones were even more so. This was by far the best international Q2 Netflix has had, easily surpassing its prior high of 2.37 million additions, achieved in Q2 ’15. Just a year ago, Colin Dixon, my weekly podcast partner, and I were mystified how Netflix saw its international additions shrivel by 36% year-over-year in Q2 ’16, even as it launched in 130 new markets. A year later, international is booming.
The other thing to note internationally is that Netflix faces a range of well-funded local competitors who are pulling out all the stops to blunt Netflix’s expansion and have significant local content rights advantages. Despite all of this, international soared in Q2. Go figure.
5. Soft Q2 results for pay-TV operators will drive cord-cutting meme to new heights
Netflix’s huge Q2 means the spotlight will shine even brighter on pay-TV operators’ forthcoming Q2 results. Q2 is traditionally a seasonally-weak quarter for the industry, but exacerbating things, this year it follows the worst Q1 in history for the industry, with video subscriber losses approaching 700K-800K. Analysts have been ratcheting down Q2 expectations and a major drubbing will absolutely drive the long-running cord-cutting meme to new heights.
At a macro level, Netflix’s results continue to be powered by an inexorable shift from linear TV to on-demand, OTT consumption. This is a point Netflix always makes in its quarterly shareholder letter. But as Netflix’s seesawing results underscore, this shift isn’t playing out in a straight line either for Netflix or for its competitors.