Netflix’s binge-spending on content isn’t expected to slow down.
The streamer spent a whopping $12.04 billion in cash on content last year, up 35% from $8.9 billion in 2017, according to its fourth-quarter 2018 earnings report.
For the year ahead, Wall Street analysts see that climbing 25% — to around $15 billion on a gross cash basis. Netflix will continue to burn cash, telling investors Thursday that it expects to record negative $3 billion in free cash flow in 2019 (similar to last year), and that it intends to continue to turn to debt markets to fund the spending rate. The company had $10.4 billion in long-term debt at the end of 2018, versus $6.5 billion year earlier.
So when will Netflix take its foot off the gas pedal on content spending?
After paying $15 billion for a “sustained ramp in its original content slate in ’19,” Netflix’s cash content spend growth will “moderate” in the years ahead, BMO Capital Markets analyst Daniel Salmon said in a research note. He anticipates Netflix’s content spending will hit $17.8 billion in 2020.
Meanwhile, as Netflix continues to write huge checks for programming, it also has massively increased marketing spending largely to promote those originals. Marketing costs grew 65% in 2018, to $2.37 billion. Analysts see that growing in 2019 — albeit less dramatically — by 22%, to nearly $2.9 billion.
One reason Netflix is continuing to make big investments now is that it’s going to face serious new streaming competition from media giants Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal starting later this year. So it’s focusing on building out a wider moat instead of delivering profits, a strategy Wall Street continues to praise.
“We believe [Netflix] could, if it chose, ramp margins more quickly by limiting growth in its substantial investment in global marketing and production, but it is (wisely) playing the long game,” Morgan Stanley’s Ben Swinburne wrote in a note Friday. The analyst reiterated an “overweight” rating on Netflix shares and set a $450 per share price target.
Netflix declined to provide guidance on content spending (or any other line items) for 2019. For full-year 2018, Netflix recorded $7.53 billion in cash for content amortized in 2018, and “I think you can obviously expect that to grow and the trajectory should be pretty similar” for 2019, VP of investor relations Spencer Wang said on a video interview for investors and analysts following the release of Q4 results.
Even with the higher content spending, Netflix has “committed” to boosting operating margin to 13% in 2018 (up from 10.2% for 2018 and 7.2% for 2017), Wang added.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explained the strategy behind the sustained level of investment as fueling a “virtuous cycle”: “The more investment you’re putting in, the more people are finding content that they love and the more they have value in the service,” he said on Thursday’s Q4 investor interview.
Originals launching on Netflix this year that it called out in the Q4 shareholder letter include “The Umbrella Academy,” a live-action series based on the superhero comic; J.C. Chandor’s heist-thriller film “Triple Frontier” starring Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac; Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Irishman”; Michael Bay actioner “6 Underground”; and Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician,” a music-driven comedy series starring Ben Platt. The company also has returning seasons of “The Crown,” “13 Reasons Why,” “La Casa de Papel,” “Elite” and breakout hit “Stranger Things,” which third season hits July 4.
Netflix also released a bunch of (unverifiable) viewing metrics, including claiming that “Bird Box” is on track to be viewed by 80 million subscribers in the first four weeks after its Dec. 21 release.
A more convincing demonstration of Netflix’s belief that it has strong momentum on the originals front was that it raised prices of streaming plans in the U.S. and some Latin American markets. Analysts expect that to add between $1 billion-$1.4 billion in incremental revenue for 2019, depending on churn prompted by the increase. For example, Netflix’s Standard plan (two HD streams) is increasing from $10.99 to $12.99 per month for new subscribers, with the new price taking effect for existing customers over Q1 and Q2.
“The future U.S. pricing narrative is convincing as Netflix continues to excel in content procurement and discovery,” MoffettNathanson’s Michael Nathanson wrote in a research note Friday.
Netflix shares fell 4% Friday after the Q4 report. Despite beating subscriber and earnings estimates, the company missed on the top line and issued Q1 financial guidance that fell short of expectations. In addition, the company’s forecast for U.S. paid sub net adds was lower than analysts anticipated, suggesting growth will be dampened by the price hike.
Netflix’s model remains a bet that it can keep growing its worldwide streaming base — which stood at 139.3 million paid subs at the end of 2018 — to not only pay current content bills but also the programming costs it’s on the hook for years in the future. Netflix’s content obligations are estimated to be over $20 billion as of the end of 2018, most of which isn’t on the balance sheet because they’re payments due a year or more out. (And, at some point, Netflix should start paying off debt.)
One technical note on Netflix’s content accounting: The company amortizes content on an “accelerated basis,” prorated according to historical and estimated viewing patterns. On average, Netflix says, more than 90% of a licensed or produced streaming content asset is expected to be amortized within four years after the first month it starts streaming. So Netflix’s cash outlay for content is front-loaded, as it builds a library of originals that will live on the service for years. For example, season one of “Stranger Things” (bowed in July 2016) will largely have been expensed by the time season three drops this summer, even as the freshman run continues to deliver value to Netflix.
Some analysts have expressed concern that Netflix will lose access to content from Disney, WarnerMedia and others, and will need to find a way to replace it. But there’s no reason to worry, according to Nathanson: With the exception of the combined Disney-20th Century Fox, “the rest of the media industry is more than happy to sell Netflix whatever they want as long as the bid is high enough and the check clears.”
Pictured above: “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”