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The past 12 months have been nothing if not eventful for Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) . Once the darling of growth investors, the company has since lost much of its former luster. After a series of controversial moves and tough market conditions, the company's stock has taken a sharp nosedive. The company in many ways seems at a crossroads. The bullish camp says this the company can overcome its inept public relations to maintain its place as the preeminent streaming service. The bears believe it's shot itself in the foot one too many times. In an effort to best inform our readers, I enlisted four of our Motely Fool analysts to weigh in on the future of Netflix.
Rick Munarriz, longtime contributor and Rule Breakers analyst:
Everywhere you turn, Netflix is under attack these days. From the opportunistic lead bidders in the Hulu auction to the Kindle Fire that will arm millions of gadgetry buffs with access to Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN ) growing digital library, it's easy to be a Netflix bear. I would be skeptical, too, if the stock hadn't already surrendered nearly 60% of its value since peaking two months ago.
Netflix still expects to close out this week with 24 million domestic subscribers, and 21.8 million of them will be paying $7.99 a month to stream across an unmatchable assortment of devices. No one can even come close to paying studios what Netflix can for content with that user base.
Is Qwikster a mistake? Yes. Did CEO Reed Hastings blow the apology? Of course. Is Netflix two-fifths the company it used to be? No.
The next few months will be challenging, and high churn will be a byproduct of any streaming service. However, couch potatoes will ultimately wind up at the one company that's been able to bridge content with convenience at a fair price. Once the parodies fade and reality makes a cameo, Netflix will be back to being the class act in this growing niche.
Anders Bylund, Fool technology contributor:
If I had to rattle off the three most competent CEOs on the market, six-shooter to my head, Netflix leader Reed Hastings would be on the list every time. Yes, even now, after the worst mistake I've seen him commit in the company's history.
But it's hard. I don't mind a different pricing strategy, even if it costs me a few extra bucks per month. I can take a painfully slow expansion of the streaming movie library, though I'd be happier if that pointless share-buyback program were redirected into getting more digital licenses instead. But I draw the line at the premature decision to send the DVD-mailing system on its merry way.
It's too early, Reed. The streaming service isn't ready to become your only serious product quite yet.
Some say that content is king, but others place the crown and scepter on convenience. Lacking the first ruler, Reed took away the second as well. That would fly in 2015 or so, and it appears to work out all right in new places like Canada and Latin America -- because they don't have to be weaned off a fabulous DVD library. But it's absolutely the wrong move here and now.
This opened a terrific window for DISH Network (Nasdaq: DISH ) and Coinstar (Nasdaq: CSTR ) to steal some of Netflix's thunder. But DISH fumbled with yet another clumsy streaming service that requires an expensive satellite-TV account. Your move, Redbox. So far, Reed Hastings is getting away with a huge mistake.
I'm holding my shares deep into the red here. I'd neither sell to cement my losses nor buy more at lower prices, so it's a solid "hold" for now. There will be a lot of proof (good or bad) in next month's earnings pudding. Those are the droids I'm looking for.
Tim Beyers, contributor and Rule Breakers analyst:
The bear thesis for Netflix assumes too much. Content providers will demand premium pricing! Hulu and Amazon will be everywhere! Users will flock to whoever has the newest content! Gahhhh!
You know what? These arguments ignore history entirely. Ask yourself: When has Netflix ever had the best content? How about never? Distribution is Netflix's real advantage. Amazon is bent on catching up with its new Kindle Fire tablet, yet there's still a long way to go if you look at the numbers.
Netflix also has the advantage of partnering with the company some consider to be its most worrisome rival: Apple. (Nasdaq: AAPL ) . The Netflix app is available on every iOS device, as well as the Apple TV set-top box. Game consoles, TVs, computers, smartphones, tablets -- almost anything with a bright screen and a speedy processor embeds Netflix now.
That's consistent with Hastings' strategy. From the most recent 10-K annual report:
"We are continuously improving the customer experience, with a focus on expanding our streaming content, enhancing our user interfaces and extending our streaming service to even more Internet-connected devices, while staying within the parameters of our operating margin targets."
Translation: It's not just about content acquisition, or understanding users, or getting Netflix on more devices. It's about smart, cost-effective expansion. Do you really believe that's a losing strategy? I don't, and I'm putting real money behind that take.
Molly McCluskey, Foolish contributor:
There's no denying that Netflix does DVDs better than anyone else. But the delivery infrastructure that established Netflix as the DVD leader is worthless in the streaming world. The decision to split and rebrand was understandable but bungled, and it cost the Red Envelope customers, investors, and loyalty.
The share price plummeted when Netflix announced that it expected to lose 1 million customers as a result of the fare increase. At 9.8 million streaming subscribers, Netflix is still king of the streaming, but that crown is losing some of its luster. Netflix is not the only game in town, and with more players comes a power shift from the content players to the content providers.
I've long been a fan of Hulu, and I'm not the only one. CEO Jason Kilar just announced that the company has reached its 1 millionth paid subscriber and is continuing to convert its 40 million unpaid subscribers. Sure, that's nowhere near Netflix's 9.8 million streaming customers, but a string of recent public-relations gaffes has left customers feeling alienated and antsy. And although subscribers equal revenue, often the size of the content library will determine the number of subscribers.
Amazon offers 100,000 movies and shows for purchase or rent; 9,000 of those are available as part of the Prime membership. As of July, Hulu Plus was reporting 15,000 hours of content, 28,000 full episodes, 2,180 television series, and 1,450 movies. It's telling that despite digging through investor-relations reports, press releases and FAQs, I'm unable to find details on the size of Netflix's streaming-only library, although I've found many complaints from current and former customers about the smallness of it.
Netflix is continuing to make deals for content, but some, like the most recent deal struck with DreamWorks Animation (Nasdaq: DWA ) aren't immediately effective. The DreamWorks deal won't kick in until 2013. In the rapid-fire world of streaming, two years is too long to buffer. There's a lot that can happen between now and then. I don't hold any hope that Netflix will regain its glory.