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Netflix stock up on deal talk

Company says 2 billion hours viewed in 4Q

Netflix stock soared Wednesday on a new round of speculation that the company could be acquired by Yahoo after it unveiled new viewership stats that grabbed Wall Street’s attention.

Shares shot up 11.36%, or $8.21, to close at $80.45 after Netflix announced that subscribers watched more than 2 billion hours of its streaming TV shows and movies in the fourth quarter of 2011.

BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield calculated that would make Netflix the 15th most watched network. “Netflix streaming usage is exploding and is far, far bigger than traditional media executives give it credit for,” he said.

Based on 21 million subs, he broke the number down to 40 billion minutes per month total — or 64 minutes per subscriber per day.

The vast majority of Netflix’sstreaming subs are in the U.S.

Greenfield figured that Netflix had more hours of viewing in October than FX, HGTV and History and more than twice the viewer hours of CNN, Discovery, MSNBC and BET. In homes that subscribe to Netflix it would have been the most watched network after CBS, he said.

Netflix’s growth has been meteoric despite strategic blunders in 2011. It alienated customers by dividing its digital download service from its traditional postal service and hiking prices, a move it quickly withdrew after its subscriber count dropped for the first time last quarter.

But founder and CEO Reed Hastings is unbowed and has said the numbers will be up again this year. He has continued to ink aggressive content deal in the U.S. and overseas.

But the once high-flying stock, over $300 at one point, took a hit and the company’s been the target of takeover speculation, by Yahoo and Microsoft in particular, ever since. Hastings is on the Microsoft board.

On Wednesday, Yahoo was again rumored as possible suitor — the same day the big netco announced the appointment of a new CEO, PayPal’s Scott Thompson. The combo has always made sense for Yahoo, which has been trying to compete on the streaming content side. That’s costly to do well, and the field is getting crowded.

Yahoo has been without a top executive since it filed Carol Bartz last fall and investors may sense some more aggressive moves on the horizon despite Thompson’s insistence that he first and foremost needs time to learn the business.

“In the back of my mind, I wonder if they buy Netflix, that would make a lot of sense,” Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster said in an interview on CNBC.

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