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Netflix subscription gains screech lower as pandemic wears on, stock falls 5%

By Jon Swartz and Jeremy C. Owens

Netflix adds 2.2 million net new subscribers after two consecutive quarters adding more than 10 million customers

Netflix Inc. reported a dramatic slowdown in new subscribers Tuesday and widely missed earnings expectations, sending shares on a plunge in after-hours trading.

Netflix (NFLX) reported 2.2 million net new subscribers in its third quarter, after two consecutive quarters topping the 10 million mark amid shelter-in-place orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The No. 1 streaming service reported net earnings of $790 million, or $1.74 a share, compared with net income of $1.47 a share in the year-ago quarter. Revenue improved to $6.44 billion from $5.25 billion a year ago. Analysts surveyed by FactSet had expected adjusted earnings of $2.13 a share on sales of $6.39 billion.

Shares fell more than 5% in after-hours action immediately following the release of the report.

"The state of the pandemic and its impact continues to make projections very uncertain, but as the world hopefully recovers in 2021, we would expect that our growth will revert back to levels similar to pre-COVID," company executives said in a letter to shareholders. "In turn, we expect paid net adds are likely to be down year over year in the first half of 2021 as compared to the big spike in paid net adds we experienced in the first half of 2020."

"Because the pandemic has been long lasting, and some states have loosened their quarantine restrictions, Netflix's U.S. subscriber growth ... is reaching saturation," eMarketer analyst Ross Benes said. "However, Netflix has tremendous upside internationally and we expect significant subscriber additions abroad."

Indeed, as Europe and perhaps U.S. states impose lockdowns during the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, Netflix could benefit with more viewers at home -- especially amid a precipitous drop in ratings for pro sporting events, and the continuing decline of movie theaters. However, Netflix is also facing furious competition from Apple Inc. AAPL (#phrase-company?ref=COMPANY%7CAAPL;onlineSignificance=passing-mention), Walt Disney Co. DIS (#phrase-company?ref=COMPANY%7CDIS;onlineSignificance=passing-mention), Comcast Corp. CMCSA (#phrase-company?ref=COMPANY%7CCMCSA;onlineSignificance=passing-mention), AT&T Inc. T (#phrase-company?ref=COMPANY%7CT;onlineSignificance=passing-mention), Inc. AMZN (#phrase-company?ref=COMPANY%7CAMZN;onlineSignificance=passing-mention), and others that are trying to catch up in streaming.

A spike in viewers might also mean a hike in prices: This month, Netflix stopped offering free trials in the U.S. and raised HD subscription rates in Canada, leading to speculation that it might follow suit in the U.S.

Read more: Is Netflix about to raise prices in U.S.? Recent actions suggest it could happen (link)

The company had no comment on potential higher prices in the days leading to its results, but some of its nearly 200 million subscribers seem open to the idea, according to one Wall Street firm.

In a poll of 2,500 U.S. consumers in the third quarter, 53% said they would be willing to pay more, up from 48% in the fourth quarter of 2019, Cowen analyst John Blackledge said in a note Oct. 14. He has an outperform rating on the stock with a price target of $625.

Still, COVID-19 both hampers and benefits Netflix, Raymond James analyst Aaron Kessler warned in an Oct. 16 note. "While we continue to view Netflix as a long-term winner in the video-on-demand space, we remain hesitant around near-term factors including 1) uncertainty around the pace of subscriber additions post-pandemic; 2) the impact of the pandemic on content releases into 2021; and 3) the company's pricing power as new DTC services compete for market share," Kessler wrote.

-Jon Swartz; 415-439-6400;


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

10-20-20 1609ET

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