We live in binge-worthy times. The proliferation of premium video services is giving entertainment-hungry consumers a wide array of choices in securing quality content, and that's the fertile soil where Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and HBO are planting their flags.
Netflix and HBO have tens of millions of paying subscribers apiece, but which one is better for investors? Netflix has been one of the hottest stocks over the past four years, reigning as the S&P 500's top gainer in 2013 and again in 2015. We can't buy into HBO directly, but its parent company -- Time Warner (NYSE:TWX.DL) -- offers a way for investors to hop on the coattails of the premium cable channel behind Game of Thrones and Westworld.
Shares of Netflix are trading near the all-time highs set earlier this month. It closed out 2016 with 93.8 million streaming subscribers worldwide, 19 million more than it had a year earlier. The larger audience materialized despite the rise of rival platforms and the daunting challenge of getting longtime subscribers that were grandfathered in to previous monthly rates of $7.99 and $8.99 to pay $9.99 month.
Revenue soared 30% at Netflix in 2016 as a 25% spike in users and those video buffs paying more combined to give the dot-com darling its largest percentage growth on the top line since 2011. It's on fire, but don't go thinking that Time Warner -- and HBO within Time Warner -- is a slouch.
Time to play B-sides
Time Warner is naturally growing a lot slower than Netflix. Revenue climbed 4% last year, well short of the 30% top-line surge at Netflix. You have to go all the way back to 2002 to find the last time that Time Warner has clocked in with double-digit revenue growth, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
However, Time Warner's been working some pretty potent magic as you look down the income statement. Adjusted earnings rose 23%, making this Time Warner's eighth straight year of double-digit growth on that front. Yes, eight years of single-digit growth -- and in some cases, declines -- on the top line hasn't stopped some big gains on the bottom line. You probably didn't see that coming.
HBO is just one small part of Time Warner, but it's a growing part of the media conglomerate. HBO has never been better. Game of Thrones scored a record average of 26 million viewers per episode during the sixth season. Last year's debut of Westworld broke records for an HBO launch.
HBO may not be growing as quickly as Netflix, but it is, in fact, growing. Time Warner sees HBO subscription revenue increasing in the high-single digits this year. HBO was late to the streaming game, but it now has more than 2 million subscribers to its internet-based stand-alone platform.
Pitting Netflix against HBO parent Time Warner may not seem fair. Time Warner trades at more realistic valuation multiples than Netflix, and it also shells out a quarterly dividend. However, the dynamic nature of Netflix and its surprising accelerating growth -- it's on pace to top 100 million subscribers by April -- make it too juicy to ignore. Whether Netflix gets bought out at a fat premium or it's able to continue its meteoric run, it's the one with the bigger chances for gains. Time Warner may be a good stock, but Netflix at this point just seems better despite the lofty valuation.