Anyone who thought Netflix's recent slowdown in subscriber growth could open up a path for Disney to make some headway in the streaming war should think again. All eyes were on Disney Plus during Thursday's earnings call, and the streaming service badly underperformed Wall Street estimates for quarterly subscriber growth.
Disney Plus now counts 103.6 million subscribers as of April 3, about 5 million fewer than consensus analyst expectations.
The service surpassed the 100-million-subscriber mark in March, just 16 months after its November 2019 launch – a milestone that took Netflix ten years to achieve. With Disney's lucrative Parks division continuing to suffer from the pandemic, so far results from the company's big bet on streaming have kept its business outlook buoyed. Yet with rapid growth comes great expectations, and in the immediate aftermath of Disney's reported shortfall on Thursday, the company's stock fell as much as 4.5% in after-hours trading.
Nevertheless, chief executive Bob Chapek said the service remains on track to reach between 230 and 260 million subscribers by 2024, as the company forecasted in March.
Analysts had been bullish that the two Marvel series debuting this quarter – "WandaVision" and "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" – would boost demand. Evidently the appeal of Marvel's expansive foray into streaming television did not quite materialize.
Disney also missed consensus revenue expectations, coming about $300 million below the consensus $15.6 billion.
Despite the misses, Chapek said he was "extremely pleased" with how customers responded to Disney Plus's price increase. Hikes in March in the U.S. did not significantly increase churn, he added.
Brett Feldman of Goldman Sachs said in his most recent investor note that a positive consumer response to the service's first-ever price increase would bode well for its long-term growth and profitability prospects. Disney has said it hopes Disney Plus will begin turning a profit in 2024.
And Brandon Nispel, equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets, wrote in his earnings preview that "profits in streaming will be dominated by a select few," and suggested that Disney is well positioned to be one of those winners. That the service — especially in such a competitive market — can retain customers despite hiking prices is a strong sign of durability.
Disney shares have been trading relatively flat of late, following an extended recovery from its pandemic plummet. By the first Monday after lockdown in March 2020, the stock had fallen over 40% to $86 from its November 2019 then all-time high of $150. It reached a new all-time high by March 2021, surpassing $200, before settling into a stagnant hover between $180 and $190 over the last month, closing at $178 on Thursday.
Investors were hoping for a positive earnings report to help break through that inertia, but instead saw the ticker going the wrong direction, at least for now.
Netflix's dominance in a crowded streaming market may be showing signs of waning, but chief executive Reed Hastings isn't worried about Disney Plus or any of the other streaming services nipping at its heels.
"Our largest competitor for TV viewing time is linear TV," Hastings said on Tuesday's earnings call. "Our second largest is YouTube, which is considerably larger than Netflix in viewing time. And Disney's considerably smaller."
Netflix's subscribers now number 208 million, more than double Disney Plus, its closest on-demand video subscription competitor.
Still, Netflix undershot its quarterly subscriber forecast for only the second time since the final quarter of 2019. With 4 million new subscribers, the 2 million shortfall was its second largest since 2016.
Chief financial officer Spencer Neumann ascribed the miss to COVID. He pointed to the "pull forward" of new subscribers in 2020 that led to the company's record growth last year and the simultaneous push back of key title launches into the latter half of 2021.
"It's super hard to, obviously, forecast quarterly subscribers in a typical quarter for us, and particularly hard in this particular environment," he said.
Sex Education Season 3 Announcement | Netflix www.youtube.com
Netflix also revealed it plans to spend $17 billion on content in 2021, up from $11.8 billion in 2020 and $13.9 billion in 2019.
The company highlighted the ongoing growth of streaming in general and its strong content slate in 2021 as signs for longer-term optimism. New launches in the second of this year will include returns of popular shows "Sex Education", "The Witcher" and "Casa de Papel" along with new original films including "Red Notice" starring Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson and "Don't Look Up" featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep.
With 35 Oscar nominations, Netflix continues its foray into film supremacy. As for its cinematic ambitions, Hastings said he believes his company has a lot of room to grow.
"We've been doing series longer and we're more dialed in about what is really big and what hits," he said. "We're getting there on film. Also on animation. Also on kids. Each of these have their own experience curve that we're progressing down."
Netflix's share price was down about 8% in after-hours trading on news of the subscriber miss and tepid expectations for the second quarter, predicting 1 million net additions, compared to 10 million in the same period last year. Hastings' worries about YouTube are well-founded. A study out earlier this week found that Gen Z is the only generation that ranks browsing the internet and engaging on social platforms higher than watching TV or movies at home.
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Hollywood is on notice: Gen Z would rather scroll through social media, play video games and stream music than watch TV or catch a film.
That's a remarkable shift from earlier generations – who still prefer to kick back and watch a screen – and poses serious challenges to traditional media, according to an annual survey of digital trends by Deloitte.
Asked to choose their favorite entertainment activity, the top response among Generation Z was video gaming (26%), followed by listening to music (14%), browsing the internet (12%), engaging on social platforms (11%) and then watching TV or movies at home (10%).
Administered in February as the pandemic was raging, the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. consumers reflects the rising popularity of gaming across ages but most starkly highlights the digital divide among generations.
"Media companies and advertisers may still be video-first, but younger generations may not be," the report said.
Of the Generation Z respondents, defined as those born between 1997 and 2007, 87% play video games daily or weekly, on smartphones, consoles or computers. And while a majority of the respondents, including millennials and Generation X, said video games have helped them stay connected to others during the pandemic, they see entertainment differently.
For all other generations (Millennials: born 1983-1996; Gen X: 1966-1982; Boomers: 1947-1965 and Matures: 1946 and prior), kicking back and watching the tube came in as the number one entertainment option.
Here are some additional takeaways:
- 82% of U.S. consumers have at least one video streaming subscription
- The average subscriber pays for four services
- Cost is the most important factor for deciding whether to subscribe to a new streaming service, followed by content selection
- 52% find it difficult to access content across so many services
- 53% are frustrated by the need to have multiple service subscriptions
- 40% would prefer to pay $12 a month for an ad-free video service, while 60% said they'd accept some ads for a lower fee.
- Streaming music subscribers pay for an average of two paid music services
- 45% would rather pay than have ads for their music streaming; 67% of millennials would prefer to pay
- 67% don't trust the news they see on social media
- 55% of Generation Z and 66% of millennials say social media ads influence their purchasing choices versus 49% of Generation X and 13% of boomers
- 40% would be willing to provide more personal information to receive more targeted ads
- 62% of Gen Z and 72% of millennials would rather see personalized ads than generic
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