Is there a “Netflix killer” looming out there that will give the No. 1 subscription-streaming leader a run for its money and throw a serious wrench into its growth trajectory?
Disney’s announcement last week of its $6.99-per-month pricing for Disney+, first launching this fall in the U.S., spooked Netflix investors. There’s seemingly cause for concern, given the Disney+ lineup of 500-plus films, including streaming-window releases of all Disney, Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars films, along with 25 original series, and 7,500-plus TV episodes set for the first year. And Disney says it’s likely to bundle Disney+ together with ESPN+ and Hulu.
But how big a threat is Disney, really? Netflix has posited that new SVOD players validate its model. And with more than 148 million streaming subscribers worldwide as of the first quarter — and a 2019 content budget estimated at $15 billion — Netflix is literally years ahead of any other would-be contenders for the throne.
Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, chairman and co-founder, waved off the competitive threats in the company’s Q1 video interview Tuesday. With characteristic nonchalance, he said he’s “thrilled” to have Apple and Disney join the SVOD wars — and said he doesn’t believe they will be “material” rivals.
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“Great competition makes you better,” Hastings said on the company’s Q1 earnings interview. “And so we’re thrilled to have Apple and Disney in. They are awesome companies and just to be in the same league as them is very exciting for us.”
Historically, Netflix execs have brought up a sports metaphor in discussing competition. Say Netflix is the NFL. The entrance of other sports leagues (Disney+, WarnerMedia, Apple, etc.) shouldn’t reduce demand for football — and overall, in theory, the new entrants should increase the number of sports fans.
The apples-and-oranges idea of the competitive matrix was raised by Greg Peters, Netflix’s chief product officer, on the interview Tuesday. There’s a framework of “broad, broad competition where a bunch of different entertainment options are being provided all sorts of different models, some ad-based, subscription at different pricing points,” Peters said. But “we don’t really think there is sort of an immediate equivalency or substitution. And so mostly it’s about how do we create more value, how do we put the right content and present it in the right way that’s compelling and differentiating for our members.”
Wall Street analysts have remained generally upbeat on Netflix’s market position even with new competing services coming out. The real result of the expanded number of SVOD options coming out will be to spur more people to cut the cord — cancelling their pricey cable or satellite TV, predicts BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield.
“As cord-cutting accelerates, it frees up wallet to spend on a wider array of SVOD services. In turn, while everyone wants to talk about Disney+ as a Netflix killer, Disney+ is actually helping Netflix and all other streaming services by freeing up wallet share for SVOD,” Greenfield wrote in an April 16 research note.
The consumer value propositions of Disney+ vs. Netflix are very different, so they won’t be directly competitive in that sense, according to MoffettNathanson’s Michael Nathanson.
Netflix is “essentially a Blockbuster store in the cloud with a mix of original and off-network all-you-can-eat, commercial-free content,” Nathanson wrote in a note Wednesday. “Disney is targeting families and a passionate base of fans of its well-branded, highly recognized, quality content. Both in the U.S. and, more likely, internationally, Netflix can continue to grow subscribers despite this new entrant.”
That said, Disney’s $6.99-per-month introductory price for Disney+ sets a new competitive benchmark that will make it more difficult for Netflix to continually raise prices, Nathanson added.
On the other hand, with Netflix raising its prices — the most popular plan is going up two bucks. to $12.99 monthly in the U.S. — that could serve to reinforce its pole position by depressing demand among consumers to pay for yet another SVOD offering. (And skeptics already believe Disney is going to raise the price of Disney+ in a year or two.)
Netflix subscribers are less likely to cancel their service than customers of any other streaming platform, according to research from consulting firm Magid. And Magid’s surveys of U.S. consumers have found that they’re willing to spend an average of around $38 per month for all their streaming services. If Netflix remains a must-have SVOD option, there’s less of that wallet to go around to others.
Not everyone thinks Netflix is well positioned to withstand the coming SVOD melee unscathed. Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, a longtime Netflix bear, says that with the coming launches of Disney+ and similar services from AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Comcast’s NBCUniversal, “it is highly likely that content from all three companies will disappear from the Netflix platform by the end of 2020.”
How will Netflix fill in the “gaps” after licensed content is pulled from the service? Note that broadcast TV reruns of shows like “The Office,” “Friends,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds” have been among the top-viewed content on Netflix, according to third-party research. The importance of such licensed content was underscored by Netflix reportedly paying Warner Bros. $100 million for a one-year extension to stream “Friends” in the U.S. and Canada.
But the balance is now tipping toward Netflix’s original programming, in terms of spending — and, according to Netflix, viewing time. Chief content officer Ted Sarandos even claimed all of the top 10 most-watched shows on the service are “Netflix original brands.” Hastings, on Tuesday’s interview, said: “We’ve expected this decline of second-window content, been ready for it, anticipating it. In fact, we’re eager to be able to have more and more of our money, be able to do spectacular new titles.”
By the way, Hastings has said he plans to subscribe to the Disney SVOD service.
“I know I’ll be a subscriber of it for my own personal watching in the same way and as many Disney and Fox executives also subscribe to Netflix and watch our shows,” he said early last year in discussing Netflix’s fourth quarter 2017 results. “So, you know what I see is we’ll all learn from each other, and total streaming will grow faster because of the competition.”
It remains to be seen of Hastings’ hunch plays out. But with nearly 150 million subscribers (and growing), Netflix isn’t about to get knocked off its perch anytime soon.