• Netflix's Q4 Results Powered by Streaming; Further Growth Ahead

    Netflix's Q4 earnings and business metrics released late Monday are resounding evidence of how important the company's Watch Instantly streaming feature is becoming to its future. Netflix ended '08 with just under 9.4 million subscribers, up 26% for the year. In Q4 '08 it added almost 2.1M gross subs (39% better than in Q4 '07) and 718K net subs (59% better than in Q4 '07). The company generated $51M in free cash flow in Q4 alone, more than in all of 2007. Did someone say there's a recession going? Not for Netflix it seems.

    But here's the really interesting news: on the earnings call CEO Reed Hastings pinned the company's ability to beat its Q4 subscriber growth guidance on underestimating "the positive impact of the introduction of the multi-function CE devices from LG Electronics, Samsung, Microsoft and TiVo that promote Netflix streaming." He further added that "streaming is energizing our growth." Those are pretty strong validations of the company's broadband and CE strategy. (Btw, SeekingAlpha has the full transcript here. If you're a Netflix follower like me, it's a must-read.)

    Hastings highlighted the LG and Samsung Blu-ray players as having a high connect rate in the 4th quarter, though noting that in terms of gross numbers Xbox and TiVo were more significant simply because their installed bases are so much larger. It's also important to know that Netflix is paying spiffs to CE partners to generate new Netflix subscribers. That further enhances the relationship between Netflix and its CE-partners. On the one hand Netflix content is both a competitive differentiator for these brands' and a generator of cash while on the other CE partners are a driver of both new subs and streaming adoption for Netflix.

    Hastings noted that Netflix is in discussions with all major CE companies to "broadly cover the Blu-ray category and Internet TV category over the next few years." In the coming years, expect Netflix to be the content locomotive for marketing broadband-enabled devices the same way that "Intel Inside" was once the technology locomotive for marketing PCs. What other content provider is going to come close to such ubiquity? Possibly Amazon, whose pay-per-download model could actually be complimentary to Netflix in driving more device adoption. But certainly not Apple, which seems intent to yoke its massive iTunes video library to the proprietary Apple TV box in a fruitless (my opinion) attempt to recreate its iPod success.

    Netflix's eventual device ubiquity is going to open up vast opportunities for the company. As I've said in prior posts, in combination with its affordable subscription model and well-respected brand name, Netflix could well become the prime potential "over-the-top" competitor to incumbent video service providers (cable/satellite/telco).

    The fly in the ointment remains Watch Instantly's content selection, which is still a shadow of the DVD-by-mail catalog. VideoNuze readers know that I've been a forceful proponent of Netflix bolstering the number of broadcast network programs in its streaming catalog. Yet I think it's clear from Netflix CFO Barry McCarthy's comments on the call that Netflix isn't planning any home run initiatives when it comes to building the streaming catalog. He notes that the level of online content spending "will be paced by our success with streaming and our determination to continue to deliver strong earnings growth."

    I generally favor that kind of steady-Eddie approach. But in this case I'd hate to see Netflix give too much weight to smoothly-growing earnings (which of course act to defend its stock price) at the expense of missing out on the big first-mover advantages it is sitting on. In fact, a key part of my prediction that Netflix could well be acquired this year (in my opinion by Microsoft, but who knows...) is that a deep-pocketed acquirer who can insulate Netflix from Wall Street's earnings expectations would be able to build Watch Instantly's library with far more vigor and hence make Netflix an even more formidable competitor.

    Only time will tell on that front. Meanwhile Netflix's outstanding Q4 - in the face of a titanic economic slowdown - is tangible evidence that the company is on a path to play a far larger role in entertainment distribution in the broadband era.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.