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Like an unknown talent generating pre-Oscar buzz,


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star continues to rise. But although the advance word is promising for the online video rental store, the crucial numbers are the ones yet to be tallied.

Netflix, which raised guidance for certain closely followed operational statistics early last month, said Thursday morning it would beat one of the revised figures for the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31.

That news elevated Netflix's shares as much as 14% at Thursday's open. Later in the morning, shares were trading at $11.65, up 64 cents, or 6%. Shares in other movie-rental chains rose about the same amount during a broad New Year's rally on Wall Street.

Netflix's announcement aligns with investors' ongoing suspicions that the video retail business is undergoing some sort of upheaval, though the exact nature of the change and the extent of its impact are hard to gauge. While Netflix is enjoying tremendous growth in mail order DVD rental via its Web site, traditional storefront video stores, most notably


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, were hit by significant post-Thanksgiving rental slowdowns of still-uncertain origins.

Blockbuster's disclosure two weeks ago that

it would fall well short of revenue and earnings estimates for the fourth quarter walloped shares in the


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offspring and caused collateral damage to smaller retail chains

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Meanwhile, Netflix said Thursday that its average monthly churn -- that is, the percentage of subscribers who drop its service each month -- would come in below the range of 6.6% to 7% it forecast in December. That range, in turn, was more optimistic than the company's prior guidance of 7% to 7.4%. In addition, Netflix said it would end the year with 857,000 subscribers, just above the midpoint of the range of 840,000 to 870,000 it projected a month ago.

But if the trends of Netflix's numbers are as positive, if not more so, as Blockbuster's are negative, Netflix still has a problem. To be sure, the company is forecasting fourth-quarter revenue of $43 million to $46 million, double the year-ago level. Free cash flow for the first three quarters of 2002 improved over the corresponding figure for 2001.

Netflix is still losing money on a GAAP basis, however, and it wasn't so long ago that Internet investors got burned by downplaying financial performance in favor of nonmonetary yardsticks such as page views and registered users. For the benefit of the remaining skeptics, Netflix is slated to report fourth-quarter financial results on Jan. 15. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial/First Call expect the company to lose 14 cents a share.