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Netflix Earnings Preview: Subscriber Growth In Focus After Q3 'Squid Game' Surge

Netflix will need to show that it can maintain subscriber growth and boost revenues, particularly outside of the U.S., with fourth quarter hits such as 'Maid' and 'Don't Look Up" when it posts earnings after the close of trading Thursday.

Updated at 1:00 pm EST

Netflix  (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. Report shares edged higher Thursday ahead of the streaming service giant's fourth quarter earnings after the closing bell, with investors focused on the impact of hits such as "Don't Look Up" and "Maid" on headline subscriber growth.

Analysts are looking for Netflix to post revenue in the region of $7.71 billion -- a 16% increase from the same period last year -- but book a smaller profit of 82 cents per share as content and expansion costs erode its bottom line.

Netflix itself sees fourth quarter revenues coming in at $7.7 billion, with earnings of 80 cents per share, net income of $365 million and negative free cash flow. 

Headline subscriber growth will, however, be the key metric for investors, with analysts forecasting a global tally of around 8.5 million additions over the three months ending in December -- taking the overall total to around 222 million -- as Netflix faces stiffer competition from rivals such as AT&T  (T) - Get AT&T Inc. Report, Disney  (DIS) - Get Walt Disney Company Report and Amazon  (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report.

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And while Netflix won't be able to capitalize on the global phenomenon that was Squid Game, the violent Korean-made dystopian drama series which generated (according to Netflix) a a "mind boggling" total of 142 million household views, fourth quarter hits such as "Don’t Look Up", "Emily in Paris" and "Maid" should still drive subscriber growth, particularly outside of north America.   

"The broad perception is that SVOD streaming's (total addressable market) has a lot of headroom and Netflix is a high-quality leader that can still grow," said Credit Suisse analyst Douglas Mitchelson. "But low-hanging fruit has been picked, competition is coming, the streaming wars will drive up content costs, and valuation is not yet appealing for non-growth investors, leaving open a negative bias for sentiment given a lack of any clear confirmation from 4Q21 app downloads." 

Netflix shares were marked 1.1% higher in early afternoon trading Thursday to change hands at $521.10 each, a move that would trim the stock's six-month decline to around 2%.

Near-term subscriber projections, too, will likely move shares in extended hours trading as investors assess the impact of a recent 10% price increase in the U.S. and Canada that could trigger faster churn rates while simultaneously lifting revenue forecasts.

Content costs are also an important metric for Netflix investors, as it looks to spend close to $20 billion -- or nearly 65% of its entire 2022 revenue forecast -- on new or existing projects. 

Netflix may also provide guidance on its nascent move into video gaming, particularly given Microsoft's  (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report recently unveiled $69 billion takeover of Activision Blizzard  (ATVI) - Get Activision Blizzard, Inc. Report, the largest in sector history. 

"We wonder if this initiative is part of mgmt looking out longer -term at how entertainment might evolve as immersive XR experiences, and trying to position the company as a key entertainment creator regardless of whether scripted or interactive, 2D or 3D," said Mitchelson. "In any case, growth investors are looking for new platform narratives from Netflix, and so we will likely over -analyze their early efforts along with everyone else."