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$6 Billion Reasons Netflix Can’t Afford to See Subscriber Growth Stall

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said this month that the service intends to spend more next year on original and licensed content than the $6 billion it spent in 2016. But before issuing more projections, he may want to review his second-quarter subscriber totals.

Netflix had forecast 500,000 new U.S. subs in Q2 but ended up with just 162,000. The company blamed negative media coverage of its impending price hike, rather than the hike itself, which hit relatively few customers in the quarter and continues to roll out through the rest of the year.

More worrisome was a drop in international subscriber additions, especially considering that the price increase applied in only a handful of countries. Overseas, 1.5 million people signed up, rather than the 2 million Netflix had projected. This is problematic because the streaming service relies on rapid growth to cover its escalating investments.

sources: Company Reporting, jackdaw research Analysis

When you compare Netflix’s contractual commitments to pay for content for the year ahead to its revenue on a trailing four-quarter basis, you get a sense of what the company has brought in from subscribers vs. what it’s due to spend.

For the last couple of years, content obligations due over the coming 12 months have been at just under 80% of trailing four-quarter streaming revenue. To look at it another way, today’s content obligations for the coming 12 months are typically equivalent to revenue a year earlier, such that Netflix has essentially a year of buffer between the amount it spends on content and the revenue it generates.

sources: Company Reporting, jackdaw research Analysis

This has worked so far because Netflix has been increasing streaming revenue at about 30%-35% per year. But if growth slows, the gap between spending and revenue will shrink quickly. In addition, Netflix has $3 billion-$5 billion of content commitments due over the coming years that aren’t included in its content-obligation figures, because the titles haven’t been named yet. Include those, and the gap likely shrinks further.

Over the past two years, Netflix has been spending 85% of its international revenue growth on international content commitments, compared with only 30% of U.S. revenue growth on domestic commitments. Should overseas revenue growth slow, Netflix could find itself paying out essentially all its new revenue in content licensing fees.

Netflix has only had a single quarter of slow growth, so it’s far too soon to panic. The next quarter will be telling, considering that the price hike may be more keenly felt. But the subscriber growth numbers are well worth watching over the next few quarters.

Jan Dawson is the founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, an advisory firm for the consumer technology market.

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