Netflix Subscriber Numbers Fueled a Decade of Frenzied Streaming Bets. That Chapter Is Over

In the stock market, the story is everything.

If you are a public company, you want to tell a story about your business. A story of growth, of ambition, of what your future holds and what your ceiling can be.

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When it works, it can send your share price soaring (just look at Nvidia and its status as the hardware company of artificial intelligence). When it doesn’t, it can result in a hasty retreat back to private ownership (see: Endeavor).

It’s something that Netflix knows all too well.

Toward the end of 2021, riding high as consumers flocked to the platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, Netflix shares topped $600. By the end of April 2022, after reporting a surprising loss of subscribers, shares tumbled below $200.

Ever since it launched, Netflix’s growth story was driven by new subscribers. More and more people kept subscribing, and as the company forged ahead with its ambitious originals strategy (with early staples like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black) and expanded into more countries, the numbers kept climbing higher. With each update, the skepticism from Wall Street and rivals (“Is the Albanian army going to take over the world?”) morphed into an earnest race to catch up (“Bob Iger Bets the Company (and Hollywood’s Future) on Streaming“).

The pandemic turbocharged that growth (executives would refer to what happened as a “pull-forward,” with people who were likely to subscribe at some point opting to pull the trigger, being stuck at home and all), but it also led to the crash in 2022 as that pandemic surge waned.

The company has since rebounded from that low (shares are back over $550), but the lesson of the 2022 crash has not been lost on co-CEOs Ted Sarandos and Greg Peters.

It is that context that matters when looking at Netflix’s choice to stop reporting subscriber numbers and ARM (what other companies call ARPU, or average revenue per user) beginning in the first quarter of 2025.

They can see the future coming, and want to set up a new story they can tell.

The past year has seen subscriber numbers rise swiftly, juiced by the company’s password-sharing crackdown. That effort isn’t done yet, but it is safe to say the end is in sight.

And a subscriber ain’t what it used to be. As Peters told analysts Thursday: “We’ve also evolved our pricing and plans with multiple tiers, different price points across different countries. I think those price points are going to become increasingly different.”

In other words, Netflix — which used to price its service roughly the same in every market — is going to change that strategy, likely lowering the cost of its service in some countries, perhaps adding ads, and skewing both subscribers and ARM in the process.

“All of that means that that historical simple math that we all did, number of members times the monthly price, is increasingly less accurate in capturing the state of the business,” Peters said, adding, “we’re not going to be silent on members as well. We’ll periodically update when we grow and we hit certain major milestones, we’ll announce those. It’s just not going to be part of our regular reporting.”

It was a line that rang back to Apple’s decision in 2018 to stop reporting how many iPhones and Mac computers it sold, with its CFO Luca Maestri telling analysts that “a unit of sale is less relevant for us today than it was in the past, given our breadth of our portfolio and the wider sales price dispersion within any given product line.”

At the same time, Netflix’s nascent ad tier is growing quickly, with executives predicting that it will become a meaningful contributor to its bottom line beginning in 2025.

Netflix wants the Street to stop focusing on subscribers, and to look at other metrics, like its revenue, operating income and engagement. On Friday, Netflix shares fell by more than 8 percent, suggesting that the Street might not be so bullish on the idea just yet.

“While still early, the potential concern is subscriber growth had significantly decelerated in 2022 … and this could be a harbinger of decelerating subscriber growth in the future,” Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich wrote, while Guggenheim’s Michael Morris noted in his own post-earnings report, “it is not implausible that the change is intended to reduce quarterly sentiment volatility around relatively small changes in true economic drivers.”

One can imagine Netflix breaking out advertising revenue too, once that becomes a meaningful part of the business … and one with a growth trajectory that is up and to the right as new and existing subs opt for ads.

They could also steal a move from Amazon’s box of tricks. The tech giant is notoriously coy about how many Prime subscribers it has. But once every few years, once it hits a nice round number, it opts to trumpet the figure.

Netflix is planning to do the same thing, but as the biggest storytelling company in streaming, it knows how to keep people hooked.

So, a year from now, when the password-sharing crackdown has likely run its course, and subscriber growth slows or ebbs, the company will have a new story to tell.

Sarandos, Peters and the Netflix executive team will have a year in development to hone that message, and hope that Wall Street is ready to binge.

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