Look out, HBO. Last year, Netflix produced more original programming than cable’s premium-network leader, according to numbers from both companies. The Internet video service isn’t slowing down, either, even if means risking subscribers with price increases needed to help pay for more exclusive TV shows and movies.
Since its push into exclusive shows kicked off in earnest with the 2013 debut of “House of Cards,” Netflix has hit the fast-forward button. Last year, it put out 450 hours of original programming, compared to 401 from Time Warner’s HBO. This year, both companies say they expect to release roughly 600 hours of original material.
HBO, of course, is the network Netflix CEO Reed Hastings set out to emulate when his service began charting a course away from streaming TV reruns and previously released movies. Ted Sarandos, the company’s head of programming, famously told GQ back in 2013 that Netflix’s goal was “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
Netflix is aiming to put itself into “an entirely different and supreme league” from its rivals, says Tom Numan, a former TV network and studio executive who now lectures at UCLA’s graduate school of theater, film and television. In effect, he says, the company is aiming to become the first global network for original shows and movies.
Amazon.com, Hulu and other services are scrambling to catch up with their own moves into original programming. Its own original slate is only a quarter the size of Netflix’s, but Amazon.com can boast that its shows won more Emmy awards last year than its rival.
Netflix is counting on a vast library of original programming to help keep subscribers on board as it meets new competition.
Netflix will test the loyalty its long-time subscribers next month when it hikes their prices 25 percent, following a two-year freeze that kept rates at $8 per month. The increase will hit 17 million to 22 million U.S. subscribers, based on analyst estimates.
Original programming doesn’t come cheap. The Los Gatos, California, company ended last year with $10.9 billion committed to Internet streaming rights, nearly doubling from $5.6 billion at the end of 2012. Netflix hasn’t disclosed how much of that spending has gone toward original series and exclusive movies, but the percentage has been steadily increasing.
The cost of licensing and overseas expansion has whittled Netflix’s profit margins. In its first-quarter results, released late Monday, the company said it earned $28 million, or 6 cents per share, on revenue of nearly $2 billion. Investors, though, are far more focused on the company’s subscriber growth.
So far, the company has delivered. Netflix picked up an additional 6.74 million customers in the first quarter to boost its worldwide audience to 81.5 million subscribers — up from 33 million before the first season of “House of Cards.” Such gains helped propel Netflix’s share price, which has more than quadrupled since then, creating about $36 billion in shareholder wealth.
But the stock price dropped more than 10 percent in extended trading late Monday after the company predicted it would only add 500,000 U.S. subscribers in the second quarter. The conservative forecast reflected the anticipated loss of some longtime subscribers due to the price increase.
There’s a worrisome history here. In 2011, subscribers fled when Netflix split off its DVD-by-mail operation from its burgeoning streaming business, a shift that hiked prices as much as 60 percent for some subscribers.
Netflix lost 3 percent of its U.S. subscribers at the time. A similar reaction to next month’s price increase might cost it 510,000 to 660,000 subscribers in the second quarter.
Analysts think a repeat is unlikely. “I don’t think you are going to see a lot of people bailing out and running for the exits,” said Rosenblatt Securities analyst Martin Pyykkonen — largely because Netflix now has so many shows you can’t find anywhere else.
That original programming appears to be a major draw for many subscribers. In a recent online survey of 2,500 U.S. adults conducted by Morgan Stanley, 45 percent cited it as a reason to subscribe to Netflix.
HBO, however, still has a huge advantage over Netflix in terms of prestige. Last year, HBO won 43 Emmys, more than any other TV network, while Netflix’s original programs garnered just four — one less than Amazon.com.