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Netflix Q2 Preview: Can International Flywheel Keep Spinning on Big Content Spending?

Netflix is set to report second quarter 2018 results on Monday, July 16, and to impress investors, it’s going to have to turn in another rocking subscriber beat — especially overseas.

For Q2, Netflix previously said it expects 6.2 million global net streaming subscriber additions: 1.2 million in the U.S., where it has the highest penetration, and 5.0 million for the international segment. That would be up from 5.2 million overall net adds in the year-earlier quarter — and put Netflix at 131.2 million streaming members worldwide.

“The debate from here, in our view, centers on Netflix’s ability to drive the kind of adoption rate and returns globally it has built in the U.S.,” Morgan Stanley analyst Ben Swinburne wrote in a research note Thursday — who thinks the answer to that is “yes.”

Not everyone on Wall Street, at this point, is convinced that Netflix can continue its red-hot growth trajectory. The company’s shares fell 4.3% on Friday ahead of the earnings report, although the stock price has still nearly doubled since the start of 2018.

The pullback by investors may have been in part due to a downgrade by UBS of Netflix’s stock from “buy” to “neutral” on Thursday. “[W]e now view [Netflix] as a less compelling risk/reward,” given the 35% rise in share price since the company reported first quarter results in April, analyst Eric Sheridan wrote in the July 11 note. At the same time, he raised his 12-month price target, from $375 to $425 per share.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank’s Bryan Kraft wrote that Netflix could miss its projected 1.2 million U.S. net adds for Q2 by as much as 500,000, or in the best-case scenario meet expectations. “Without meaningful positive estimate revisions, or 3Q subscriber guidance coming in ahead of expectations, it seems unlikely that the stock will move higher next week,” he wrote.

Still, according to Swinburne, who maintains an “outperform” rating on the stock, Netflix is increasing its “competitive moat” against competitors, with a globally scaled content engine on pace to deliver 1,000 originals on the service by the end of 2018. Netflix has projected spending up to $8 billion (on a P&L basis) on content this year, up from $6 billion in 2017.

“On top of the ability to use data to improve its programming and marketing decisions, Netflix now brings to market a content offering that boasts $16 billion in net content value,” Swinburne wrote. “As a result, other than live sports and news, we see the potential for Netflix to not just take share from other networks or channels, but to represent ‘TV’ for many households.”

Indeed, a recent survey by Cowen & Co. found that Netflix was the No. 1 source cited by U.S. consumers for how they watch TV — with 27% of total respondents saying Netflix is the place they watch television most, followed by basic cable at 20%, broadcast at 18% and YouTube at 11%.

But UBS’s analysis has indicated “weakening U.S. consumption trends” for Netflix in Q2 sequentially, based on comScore measurements. In addition, the analyst firm found that Google search-trends analysis suggests sequel seasons for many core franchises in Q2 — most notably “13 Reasons Why” and “Luke Cage” — are underperforming compared with prior seasons.

That said, Netflix has a much more robust Q3 slate of originals lined up, analysts say. That includes the premieres of “Orange Is the New Black” season 6 (July 27), Matt Groening’s “Disenchantment” (Aug. 17), “Ozark” season 2 (Aug. 31), “BoJack Horseman”  (Sept. 14), as well as “Narcos” season 4, and the “House of Cards” sixth and final season.

And Netflix increasingly can take its spending on original programming and amortize that over a growing subscriber base outside the U.S. In the United States, Netflix has said its long-term view it can reach 60 million to 90 million homes. It’s bumping up against that floor already, with 56.7 million U.S. members as of the end of the first quarter of 2018.

Analysts expect India to be a particular source of strength for Netflix in Q2, as well as other emerging markets including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. On the other hand, Netflix’s top three markets (the U.S., Brazil, and Mexico) all experienced a decline in iPad app download rankings and in European markets like France, the U.K. and Germany, according to UBS — and that could signal trouble longer-term for international growth.

Can Netflix once again overdeliver? Over the past eight quarters, Netflix has on average topped its total net subscriber addition guidance by around 1 million — and about three-quarters of that beat has come from international markets, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter noted.

For Q2, analysts expect Netflix to post revenue of $3.9 billion and earnings of 79 cents per share, up 81% from the year-ago quarter. That’s in line with Netflix’s previous guidance.

In addition to the second-quarter numbers, Wall Street also will be focusing on Netflix’s Q3 guidance. Analysts have forecast 947,000 U.S. net adds and 5.05 million internationally for the current quarter (versus net gains of 850,000 U.S. and 4.45 million international subs in Q3 2017).

As for Netflix’s ongoing cash burn, which fuels its burgeoning slate of originals, Swinburne expects Netflix to raise another $4 billion of capital through the end of 2020 before it reaches free cash-flow positive territory. While the company certainly is outspending other subscription VOD rivals like Hulu and Amazon, as well as TV networks, directionally its programming spending is “consistent with other TV production and distribution businesses” like Time Warner, CBS and 21st Century Fox, per Swinburne’s analysis.

But more content isn’t necessarily better. And some observers suggest Netflix’s binge-spending on programming may hit a saturation level where it delivers diminishing returns.

If Netflix keeps constantly flooding the service with new shows, “the lack of shift in mix away from some familiar shows towards completely new shows could shift consumer perception on service quality over time,” Barclays analysts Kannan Venkateshwar, Divyaunsh Divatia and Ross Sandler wrote in a note July 9.

“Quality perception is not an absolute and is not defined by the amount of money spent or a show’s production quality,” the Barclays team added.

Pictured above: “13 Season Why” season 2, which debuted on Netflix on May 18

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