Big Changes Coming to Netflix After Catastrophic Earnings
Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

Big Changes Coming to Netflix After Catastrophic Earnings

After disrupting the film and television industry, Netflix is about to undergo some disruption itself.

The streaming service announced Tuesday that some big changes are on the way after a disastrous first quarter that sank its share price in after-hours trading. In response, the company vowed to crack down on password sharing—a longstanding issue that Netflix has largely ignored until recently—and co-CEO Reed Hastings all but confirmed that it will finally add an advertising-supported subscription option. The company is even “pulling back” on its spending growth to reflect its new financial reality.


“When we look at the last 20 years…we've gone through a lot of changes, and we've always figured them out one by one,” Hastings said on Netflix’s earnings call Tuesday. “We have a bunch of opportunity to improve, but coming out the other side, I’m pretty sure we'll look at this as really foundational in our continued journey.”

Netflix shares cratered after investors learned that the streaming platform had lost subscribers for the first time in more than a decade last quarter—with its stock price down nearly 26% in after-hours trading, to under $259 per share. Netflix not only shed 200,000 subscribers from January through March, but said it expects to lose 2 million more in the current second quarter.

Part of the problem was that the company lost 700,000 subscribers after suspending its service in Russia, in protest of that country's invasion of Ukraine. But even excluding its Russian retreat, Netflix would have added only 500,000 paying customers last quarter—well below the 4 million it added in the year-earlier period, as well as the 2.5 million it had previously projected for the first quarter.

Netflix management told shareholders Tuesday that COVID-19 had clouded its outlook; the pandemic turbocharged growth in 2020 as consumers were stuck at home, leaving company leaders believing the subsequent slowdown was only a pandemic hangover.

Now, Netflix is acknowledging what many observers have long speculated: The original streaming giant has been battered by the streaming wars. After being caught flat-footed by the rise of streaming, legacy media giants like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery have joined the market that Netflix essentially created, offering content and pricing that is often as good, if not better.

In a letter to shareholders, Netflix placed much of the blame on password sharing, estimating that 100 million households may be using accounts without paying for them. (The company has 222 million paying customers globally.) Netflix management said it sees a “big opportunity” to monetize those non-paying households.

The problem is “not a new thing,” Hastings acknowledged. Indeed, account-sharing as a percentage of its paying membership hasn’t changed much over the years, Netflix reported Tuesday, and may have even helped fuel its growth by getting more people to use the app. But coupled with other factors, Netflix now believes it is a major headwind—and with new user growth now at a standstill, the day of reckoning for password-sharing may soon be arriving.

The same can be said for Netflix’s resistance to advertisements. Despite other streaming services luring customers with cheaper ad-supported options, Netflix hasn't budged when it comes to commercials—until now.

“Those who have followed Netflix know that I've been against the complexity of advertising and a big fan of the simplicity of subscription,” Hastings said. “But as much as I'm a fan of that, I'm a bigger fan of consumer choice, and allowing consumers who would like to have a lower price and are advertising-tolerant get what they want makes a lot of sense.”

Other changes may also be on the way. Netflix may have popularized “binge-watching” by giving consumers entire seasons of shows all at once, but some industry observers believe that approach fuels cancellations, since consumers can plow through a show then ditch the service before their next monthly bill.

Netflix plans to release the upcoming season of the fan favorite “Stranger Things” in two parts, which could keep some customers subscribed to the platform for a bit longer. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos described the approach as “satisfying for the binger or the one-at-a-time viewer as well.” He also spoke positively of Netflix releasing some unscripted shows in “mini-batches” on a weekly basis.

One place where Netflix doesn’t seem ready to budge is live sports, though Sarandos didn’t completely close the door on that one, either.

“I'm not saying we'd never do sports, but we'd have to see a path to growing a big revenue stream and a big profit stream with it,” he said.

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