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Netflix Subscriber Numbers Aren’t Cause for Alarm Yet

Netflix’s Q1 earnings on Tuesday helped trigger a big drop in share price along with a round of doomsday predictions. While the streaming leader beat earnings per share and revenue, global net subscribers missed the mark by over 2 million (3.98 million vs. 6.2 million expected).

Key here, of course, is that Netflix still grew subscribers (and everything else, too). And despite little in the way of marquee properties (Bridgerton‘s Christmas debut aside) this past quarter and nationwide reopenings in the U.S. leading to people spending less time in front of TVs, Netflix did manage to tack on another 4 million subs. The greater concern might be the projected 1 million total for Q2, but again, that’s still growth.

As streaming matures, the conversation will inevitably shift from subscriber acquisition and exponential growth to one of stability amid a crowded market — in which, Netflix remains the global leader with some amount of market saturation. The company also said it didn’t believe increased competition was part of missing the mark on subscriber growth last quarter. While it wasn’t the sole reason for that slowdown, it’s unrealistic to think it also had nothing to do with it (something Netflix certainly knows).

Think, in the last 18 months, it’s not just dealing with an influx of competitors, but an influx of competitors backed by the traditional TV giants it’s been taking market share from for years. Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, Paramount+ AMC+ and Discovery+ (among many others) have all rolled out services in less than two years, while Disney-owned Hulu has grown its offering and Apple TV+ also joined the streaming wars. Players like Roku, VIZIO, Samsung and LG continue to grow their capabilities (and at a lesser cost to consumers). Even if streaming hours per household were poised to keep increasing — and while that could happen, there’s an upper limit there based on hours in a day — there’s only so much time to go around. And you could argue there’s a lot less of it now than this time last year, given everything starting to get back to “normal” and summer months arriving.

Streaming’s maturity will eventually resemble linear TV, and the goal is ultimately to keep who you have while adding incrementally, in part because there are only so many subscribers left to acquire in your footprint. Netflix is already ahead of the game there, even if Disney is catching up. And this is without really banking on the sort of franchise IP building that services like Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock and HBO Max are or will be banking on.

Netflix seems to understand this dynamic, however, and are already moving to make changes. Bridgerton was a hit in the exact vein the company was looking for when it brought in Shonda Rhimes — a creator who both drives viewers and can produce at the quantity Netflix’s content engine demands. And Netflix plans to do more in that mold, especially with normal production schedules back up and running.

And even if eight months off from launching, Netflix and Sony’s partnership does further address concerns around what’s driving tune-in for the service. An exclusive 18-month window on Sony’s theatrical releases at no extra cost, and the potential for first dibs on direct-to-streaming adds a whole new layer of demand for Netflix subscriptions that wasn’t even there before. The Spider-Man movies alone could probably drive sign-ups due to the popularity of Marvel-related content… even if the library content all eventually winds up on Disney+, per Wednesday’s announcement.

All of this isn’t to say that Netflix can’t be doing more to fuel growth, however. One area where it lags is in terms of TV advertising, and that’s been the case for several years now. Netflix had the 19th-most TV ad impressions of all streaming services from Jan. 1-April 15, 2021, per iSpot, and its 238 airings were 34th in that group.

Yes, virtually every consumer knows what Netflix is and what they can watch there (plus their original content is favored over competitors’ by as many as 39% of Americans, per one recent survey). But the service would probably stand well to put itself out there at least a little bit more, especially as more original shows and movies keep joining the queue in 2021. Looking at iSpot’s TV ad impressions data, Sling, Tubi and fuboTV ads were among those seen more times than Netflix’s spots. It’s tough to maintain big growth numbers when the price of the service keeps climbing and there are fewer ads telling you what’s coming to Netflix that makes you want to subscribe (or maintain your subscription). Though for what it’s worth, Tubular Audience Ratings shows Netflix had 245.3 million unique viewers across Facebook and YouTube in March — 35th among all properties globally. Given social media’s younger audience than linear TV, that could provide some hints on which age group Netflix focuses on growing its subscriber base through.

Overall, though, there’s no immediate danger for Netflix, as much as a recalibration that tracks with the streaming ecosystem as a whole. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing for the company (or streaming) — but the reaction to subscriber numbers could still serve as a warning shot for changes ahead. Some of those may be subtle (like TV ads and promo strategies). Others could be bigger, like the Sony deal and whether Netflix opts for any similar arrangements to bolster its content quality. But it seems clear that what’s ahead will be different, by necessity.