The streaming giant reported a loss in U.S. subscribers for the first time, a worrisome result for investors in light of the rising competition in over-the-top streaming services. Netflix shares plummeted 11% after its Wednesday earnings release, and were roughly flat in Thursday trading.
Netflix executives pinned the subscriber miss -- overall, it added just 2.7 million new subscribers in the quarter, far below its prior guidance of 5 million -- partly on price increases in some regions, as well as on a weak slate of content during the quarter. In the U.S., however, the loss in subscribers suggests that Netflix is approaching a price ceiling, said Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter.
"They lost subscribers for the first time since they started reporting streaming separately, and that's without meaningful competition or loss of meaningful content. I think it can ONLY be due to the most recent price increase, and I think that it suggests they're bumping up against a ceiling on what they can charge without losing subscribers," he wrote in an email. " I personally think they can charge $20 and keep 80% of their domestic subscribers, but then the stock won't be as growthy, and it may drop in value further."
Apple -- which hasn't yet announced pricing for its TV+ streaming service -- may be facing a similar calculus as it prepares for a fall 2019 launch.
Given Apple's far smaller content slate at the outset, many analysts anticipate that Apple will undercut Netflix's pricing -- which is $13 for a U.S. standard plan, or $10 on a global, ARPU (average revenue per user) basis according to Bernstein Research.
In a May analysis, Bernstein's Toni Sacconaghi wrote that for Apple attaining 50 million subscribers within 3 to 4 years of launch -- which would place it on par with Apple Music in terms of growth -- is the benchmark to beat. Whether it can get there will hinge on two unknowns: Precisely what content will be available initially, and at what price point.
"One potential solution is to bundle Apple TV+ with a discounted 3rd-party SVOD service such as HBO Now or Showtime, as had been rumored in the leadup to Apple's March streaming announcement," he wrote. "This would enable Apple TV+ to immediately overcome its initial content deficit while also underpricing traditional cable TV." He suggested that Apple could bundle TV+ with HBO and Showtime for a combined price of roughly $20-$25 per month.
Other than Netflix, other competitors entering the ring in the coming quarters are Disney's (DIS - Get Report) $7/mo Disney+ and AT&T (T - Get Report) WarnerMedia's HBO Max, which will reportedly cost $16 or $17 per month -- both heavyweights with ownership of a good amount of IP, unlike Apple.
Apple's advantage, as often noted by analysts, is its installed base of 1.4 billion devices -- which gives it the ability to heavily market its own service, to offer a seamless subscription and payment experience on Apple devices, and perhaps to offer free trials to get TV+ content in front of as many eyeballs as possible.
The price of TV+, whether it's just a standalone service or offered as part of a bundle, will be a critical factor in how many households give it a shot. Whether it can move the ball for Apple's top line is another question.
"For instance, we would consider Apple TV+ a success if it achieved 50 million subscribers at $7/month in 4 years...Yet this would only generate ~$4 billion in annual revenues, or less than ~2% of Apple's revenues today," noted Sacconaghi, underscoring that even if Apple's streaming service succeeds in gaining subscribers, as a profit center it likely still has a long way to go.