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Why Netflix’s Leading Position in Streaming May Be In Trouble

Rising competition from deep-pocketed rivals such as Disney, Amazon and Discovery/ WarnerMedia threatens to erode Netflix’s once iron grip on the streaming industry.

For years, Netflix  (NFLX) - Get Netflix Inc. Report has been nearly synonymous with streaming movies and television, even spawning popular memes incorporating the streaming service in the same way one might refer to Kleenex.

However, a growing cavalcade of challengers with both sizable pocketbooks and existing video catalogs could soon cut into not only the company’s cultural significance, but its prized place as the top streaming service.

In fact, the recent string of blockbuster deals in the streaming space is only adding to an alarming trend of market share declines in recent years.

According to market research firm Ampere Analysis, Netflix’s U.S. market share in streaming has been reduced from nearly one-third of the total market at the end of 2019 to only one-fifth at the end of 2020. Additionally, fellow market research firm Parrot Analytics notes that about 50% of U.S. streaming service consumers tout Netflix’s original content as the most-demanded in 2021. While this still leads the market, it is a significant reduction from the approximately 65% rate notched only two years ago.

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Growing Competition

Of course, one of the main reasons for this decline is the surge in choices available to consumers as compared to years prior. Netflix was relatively unchallenged in 2015, having triple the U.S. share of its nearest competitor at the time in Amazon  (AMZN) - Get Inc. Report, which was also the only competitor to hold a double digit market share, according to Nielsen. But in 2020, three competitors -- Amazon, Disney  (DIS) - Get The Walt Disney Company Report (both with Disney+ and Hulu) and AT&T's  (T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report HBO Max -- held double-digit market shares, encroaching upon Netflix's 21% slice of the streaming market.

Of additional concern is the fact that many of Netflix’s newer competitors are entering the streaming landscape with very deep pockets, extensive catalogs of content already familiar to consumers or in some cases, both.

Sgt. Keith L. Craig, an executive at Disney who manages theatrical sales and distribution, noted in an interview with TheStreet that while Netflix was a trailblazer, the company has not been innovative enough to maintain a lead over its hard charging competitors, many of whom had aided Netflix’s rise by initially allowing it to host their content.

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“Before launching, Disney took back their content from Netflix which left Netflix in a vulnerable position,” Craig said. “Netflix is now competing with some of the top production companies in the world and they have to stay consistent to not be replaced by a force like Disney.”

In order to sustain this competition and make up for the loss of content, the company has needed to pursue heavy spending sprees on original content, often funded by debt. The company’s cash burn has thus been a lingering concern, despite Netflix CFO Spencer Neumann's efforts to assuage investors.

"We think we've turned the corner on that flow story so we expect to be about cash flow breakeven this year and then sustainably free cash flow positive and growing thereafter," Neumann told analysts during the company's first quarter earnings call in April.

Still, as the company seeks to up its spending from a coronavirus-hit content spend of $11.8 billion in 2020 to $17 billion in 2021, there remains a degree of skepticism about the sustainability of the recent encouraging cash-flow trend. Indeed, there is reason to suspect it was paradoxically aided by coronavirus due to necessary cuts in content spending and production.

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Cash burn is less of an issue for primary rival Disney, given the entertainment giant’s back catalog of content that spans over a century. That existing content adds to Disney’s well-known prowess for producing hit movies to the present day, consistently charting some of the highest grossing films in history in recent years.

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And among the growing list of other competitors in the streaming space, cash burn is also not likely to be an obstacle.

“Apple  (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report, Amazon and Google  (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Report all compete with Netflix in video streaming and content, and can deploy vast war chests of cash in pursuit of competitive advantage,” said Barry Randall, chief investment officer of Crabtree Asset Management.

Consolidation on the Rise

Indeed, Amazon is the latest to signal its intention to spend big on bolstering its content catalog by recently acquiring MGM Studios for $8.45 billion.

“MGM’s content library and upcoming film slate give a significant boost to Prime Video's library,” JMP Securities analyst Ronald Josey wrote in a note assessing the deal. “Collectively MGM content has won 180 Academy Awards and 100 Emmys, and Amazon also benefits from its robust upcoming slate of films that further strengthens Amazon’s Prime Video offering.”

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Josey added that a robust back catalog of over 4,000 films, including fan favorites like the James Bond and Legally Blonde franchises, as well as 17,000 TV shows, including popular series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Fargo.

Amazon is only the latest to leverage M&A to try to close in on Netflix’s once-comfortable lead in streaming. And the heavy competition has encouraged laggards to join forces to challenge Netflix rather than fight amongst themselves for more meager market share.

This trend was highlighted by Discovery’s  (DISCA) - Get Warner Bros Discovery Inc Com Ser A Report recent $43-billion deal for WarnerMedia, driven in large part by the desire to add the popular HBO streaming service to its offerings. Additionally, the deal combined HBO’s handsome back catalog with content from CNN, DC Comics, and Cartoon Network to its existing content such as HGTV, the Food Network and Animal Planet.

Moving forward, many are expecting similar deals, perhaps from the already relatively recently combined company of ViacomCBS  (VIACA) - Get ViacomCBS Inc. Class A Report.

"Various recent press reports have suggested Viacom as a potential target with several assets that could command a premium," Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich wrote in a recent note. “VIAC’s deep breadth of content (library of 140,000-plus TV episodes and 3,600-plus films across sports, movies, comedy, news, children, etc.) has value as an entire entity or if sold in individual parts.”

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While Amazon’s deal for MGM might remove an anticipated bidder, the sizable library could prove an appetizing acquisition for other major players like Apple and Google as they try to move past beyond current competitors like Comcast’s CMCSA Peacock platform, and closer to Netflix’s top tier.

Overall, industry consolidation is likely to only further threaten Netflix’s lead and allow for clearer choices for consumers that might be overwhelmed by the slate of options in the arguably oversaturated streaming industry.

To be sure, Netflix has been able to maintain its industry-leading market share for quite some time, with original content increasingly undergirding its success. Further, the service appears to be quite sticky as its churn rate of only 2.4% remains exceedingly low despite the significantly increased competition it has been facing.

The question that will arise is when the competition becomes too compelling to keep ahead of. Given the cash being poured into the streaming space to create appealing content, that question is only going to loom larger for Netflix in the near future.

Disney, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple are holdings in Jim Cramer’s Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL? Learn more now