Today is a bittersweet anniversary for Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) shareholders.
It was a year ago today that the company announced plans to begin charging customers on its unlimited DVD plans for its streaming service. It shaved $2 a month off its DVD plans, but the media rallied around the $7.99 a month that they would have to start paying if they wanted to continue to receive the growing catalog of streaming titles.
The most extreme case -- customers who were previously paying $9.99 a month for unlimited DVDs with one disc out at a time -- would now be paying $15.98 if they wanted to continue to receive both optical discs and streams. It was this 60% increase that became a rallying cry for consumers, leading to the unrest that dealt the company back-to-back quarters of net declines in domestic subscribers.
Investors, on the other hand, loved the news initially. A 60% rate hike? Sweet! It was a day after the announcement that Netflix shares hit its all-time peak of $304.79.
We know who got the last laugh. The stock was trading 73% lower as of yesterday's close.
Is Netflix a fourth of the company that it used to be? Its market cap may suggest that, but its metrics tell a different story.
After all, Netflix had 25.6 million subscribers at the end of June last year -- just two weeks before the decision that turned Fortune's Businessperson of the Year in 2010 into a popular pick on many worst CEO of 2011 lists. There were nearly 29 million subscribers as of the end of this year's first quarter.
Average revenue per user is declining -- probably stumping the once-bullish analysts that figured the rate increase would boost revenue per subscriber -- but that's the nature of many Netflix customers choosing streaming at $7.99 a month and either canceling their DVD plans or trading down to a cheaper plan with fewer mailed discs.
A metric that isn't going the company's way is profitability.
When Netflix reports its second-quarter results in two weeks, analysts see revenue climbing 13% as the byproduct of greater subscriber growth held back by lower revenue per member. However, analysts expect the company to be barely profitable this time, entirely the result of steep losses from its fledgling international services.
Still, is Netflix really a sliver of the company that it was a year ago?
The untold story
We will obviously never know how things would've played out if last summer's rate hike -- and the short-lived Qwikster fiasco that followed -- had never taken place.
However, even before the announcement, there were signs that business was slowing. Both its domestic and international subscriber growth during the second quarter was its slowest in nearly a year.
It's easy to see Coinstar's (Nasdaq: CSTR ) Redbox growing its business and even successfully implementing a 20% rate hike last October. Meanwhile we have Netflix shedding disc-based subscribers in each of the past few quarters. If Netflix hadn't made subscribers choose between the two plans -- or perhaps even offered a discount for buying into both offerings -- maybe it wouldn't have lost as many of its high-margin DVD customers.
However, Redbox is the exception to the rule here. DISH Network (Nasdaq: DISH ) continues to close Blockbuster stores. NCR (NYSE: NCR ) cashed out of the DVD kiosk business. Studios are suffering from sluggish DVD sales.
The streaming revolution is a slow roller
Netflix was right about streaming being the future, but just as Redbox is the exception to the DVD rule, it seems as if Netflix is the exception to the streaming market.
Plenty of big names are jumping into the market that Netflix has been cultivating since 2007. Cable providers, wireless carriers, and dot-com legends either have streaming video services on the market or are about to launch them. Even DVD rental standout Redbox -- in cahoots with Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) -- is planning to introduce a digital video service later this year.
No one can match Netflix and the catalog that it's been able to amass because it was early and recently vocal about making streaming its top priority.
Making streaming a premium product was the right decision. Studios no longer have to feel that they're handing licensing rights to a company that is belittling the product as a door prize freebie to DVD renters. It's not a coincidence that Netflix has been able to nab some juicy original programming since making the split.
Netflix's strategy is resonating with customers, as all but 2 million of its premium members are on the streaming plan.
Maybe the company was unfashionably early, but you can't be a disruptor -- even when you're disrupting yourself -- if you err on the side of being fashionably late.
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