Are ads an inevitability for Netflix?

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Netflix – a success story

It’s fair to say that Netflix is one of the huge tech success stories of the 21stcentury. Having started as a DVD sales and rental business, it expanded its business in 2010 with the introduction of streaming media, whilst initially retaining the DVD side of the business. It now has more than 148 million subscribers in over 190 countries. Its earnings to date have reflected its meteoric rise: in Q1 of 2019, for example, the company reported $4.52bn revenue, compared to the $4.5bn anticipated by Wall Street.

Competitors on the horizon

So far, so good. However, Netflix has undoubtedly benefited from first-mover advantage, and that may be coming to an end. Many media companies such as Disney, Apple, Amazon, Sky and traditional broadcasters are launching their own streaming services with established and new content; Disney has already removed all its original movies from Netflix, as well as those it owns the rights to, including Marvel and Star Wars. In the aforementioned Q1 report, Netflix stated that it didn’t expect this new competition to negatively affect its subscriber growth; however, that seems inevitable, and Netflix has already taken steps to mitigate the risk.

Taking the battle to competitors with original content

The obvious solution to increased competition has been for Netflix to make substantial financial investment into the creation of its own original content, which can’t be withdrawn by a competitor. However, that’s a huge investment and, as CNN points out, ‘the continuous influx of revenue still falls several steps short of what the company is spending each quarter [on original content]’. The cost has to be covered somehow – but how?

Running ads to cover costs

In an IAB panel back in April, execs from YouTube, JPMorgan and two agencies concluded that running ads were an inevitability for Netflix – echoing Sir Martin Sorrell in 2015 when he said that Netflix would inevitably have to build digital ads into its marketing strategy. Hulu has done this successfully with a two-tier subscription option – a more expensive ad-free choice, and a cheaper ad-supported service. Analysts believe that Hulu makes more money per subscriber from its subscription plus ads combination than it does from its more expensive ad-free option. Given Netflix’s scale – it is the third most-watched TV ‘channel’ in the UK, for example – it is an extremely attractive proposition for advertisers – and that makes it attractive for investors and Wall Street. However, Netflix subscribers are vocal in their opposition to this suggestion, and a 2018 trial was not a success: 57% of a control group said they would cancel their subscription. It’s worth noting though that Hulu added more subscribers than Netflix in Q1 the US (3.8m versus 1.74m), even with ads.

There are alternatives to ads

What are the alternatives? Netflix could of course increase its subscription prices; even after bumping them up in the last quarter of 2017, it increased its subscriber count by 50% more than Wall Street predictions. There is probably an upper limit to this option though. Another would be to look at the other side of the balance sheet: cut investment in original content and focus on the shows that are sure to be smash hits, which aren’t necessarily original. In 2018, just two of the top ten most watched Netflix shows were Netflix originals.

What does the future hold for Netflix?

Netflix is comfortably winning the streaming game at the moment, but it needs to re-examine its model in light of the rise of competitors. A digital ad platform is one option, but there is a risk that that move would lead to the loss of many of its subscribers – which competitors would welcome with open arms. There are other options – increasing subscription prices and cutting costs elsewhere – and Netflix will have to look at all of them in depth in the coming months.

Image: Shutterstock

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