By Lucas Shaw and Bloomberg
April 16, 2019

Netflix delivered a disappointing forecast for the latest quarter, with growth in the U.S. slowing to a near-trickle, renewing fears about its prospects in an increasingly competitive streaming industry.

The company signed up 9.6 million subscribers in the first quarter, a record level that beat analysts’ estimates of 8.94 million new customers globally. But it predicted just 5 million new signups globally this period, well short of Wall Street forecasts for 6.09 million. A price increase in the U.S. is contributing to churn, Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings said in a letter to shareholders.

The outlook jarred investors, who initially sent the shares down as much as 9.3% in extended trading. But the stock recovered to a decline of about 1% as Hastings assured shareholders that streaming rivals aren’t about to crush its growth.

“We believe we’ll all continue to grow as we each invest more in content and improve our service,” he said in the letter. “Consumers continue to migrate away from linear viewing (similar to how U.S. cable networks collectively grew for years as viewing shifted from broadcast networks during the 1980s and 1990s).”

Disney+ Looms

Netflix ended the last quarter with 148.9 million paid subscribers globally, and it remains the dominant paid streaming service. But rivals are proliferating. Last week, Walt Disney Co. unveiled plans for its kid-friendly online platform, which will cost several dollars less than Netflix. The $6.99-a-month Disney+ will offer content from the company’s Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars franchises.

The weakness in Netflix’s forecast reflects some fallout from a price increase. This quarter, Netflix expects to add just 300,000 customers domestically—well below its recent pace—and 4.7 million internationally. Analysts were projecting 617,000 additions in the U.S. and 5.47 million elsewhere, the average of four estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Last quarter’s record subscriber addition reflected big gains overseas and slower growth in the U.S. The company added 1.74 million customers at home and 7.86 million everywhere else. During the period, Netflix released new series produced in the U.K., South Korea and India.

Investors were already concerned about the effect of Disney+, which will debut in November. Netflix fell almost 4% last week when Disney gave its presentation on the service.

Programming Budget

Netflix’s budget eased a bit in the first quarter. The company has committed $18.9 billion for future programming, down from more than $19 billion three months earlier. While Netflix reports a profit, it still spends more than it makes. The company boosted its estimated cash burn for the year to $3.5 billion.

Investors have generally rewarded Netflix for spending ever-larger sums of money on new shows, confident in the company’s assertions that those investments are yielding new customers. Netflix added 28.62 million paid subscribers last year, a new record, while spending more than $7 billion on programming, also a new high.

In the past quarter, Netflix released new scripted series Umbrella Academy and Love, Death and Robots, and the film Triple Frontier—as well as new seasons of unscripted shows Queer Eye and Hasan Minhaj’s talk show.

Netflix is building a large lead before the entry of new competitors, and is amassing a library of its own shows to make up for programs it will lose to them. Disney, AT&T, and Comcast, which have licensed shows to Netflix, are all now developing their own streaming services.

The big story in recent years is Netflix’s inroads overseas. More than 80% of the company’s new customers hail from outside the U.S.

While Netflix declines to gives country-by-country specifics, Western Europe and Latin America have supplied most of its recent growth. Asia, where Netflix was absent until 2016, has just started to pick up.

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