As the industry leader in streaming video, Netflix (NFLX -4.49%) has surpassed more than its fair share of benchmarks. On the subscriber front, the company has nearly 149 million customers worldwide and recently reached a long-professed goal of more than 60 million domestic users.
While those figures are impressive (and growing), consider this: The total number of Netflix subscribers in the U.S. could more than double the number of domestic cable subscribers by 2024.
Let's look at how Netflix could get there and the challenges to reaching that benchmark.
Going in different directions
Cable television is still fairly ubiquitous in the U.S., even though its subscriber base peaked some time ago. Traditional cable subscribers currently number about 47 million, according to data compiled by Leichtman Research Group, but that number has been steadily declining for years. Cable companies represented a little over half of the 89.1 million overall pay-TV subscribers in the U.S. at the end of 2018. The remainder came from satellite, phone and streaming providers.
The major U.S. traditional cable television providers, including Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox, Altice USA, Mediacom, and Cable One have collectively lost roughly 700,000 subscribers a year over the past five years, amounting to about a 1.5% yearly decline.
At the same time, Netflix has been continually increasing its subscriber base. While its growth has slowed somewhat in the U.S. (Netflix's most mature market), the company still added 5.68 million U.S. customers last year, the highest number of additions since 2015. Netflix has long signaled its intention to grow its domestic subscriber numbers to between 60 million and 90 million.
Analysis by KilltheCable.com suggests that if this growth trend continues, Netflix could achieve the high end of its stated goal and reach 90 million U.S. customers by 2024. Over the same time frame, the steady decline of traditional cable subscribers will drop its ranks below 43 million.
It's important to note that a lot could happen over the next five years to change those statistics substantially. The research points out that Netflix also has challenges ahead if it wants to reach this arbitrary benchmark.
Netflix's addressable market in the U.S. is shrinking
With more than 60 million subscribers, Netflix is already being streamed in nearly half of the estimated 128 million households in America. It's unlikely that the remaining potential customers have made a conscious choice not to sign up, but getting them as subscribers could be a challenge.
One big issue is password sharing. A recent survey by analysts at MoffettNathanson found that 14% of Netflix users in the U.S. admitted to using a password supplied by someone they don't live with, and watching the programming without paying for it. A study by CordCutting.com came to a similar conclusion, with 15% of respondents using another subscriber's account.
Netflix has long believed password sharing isn't a big deal. CEO Reed Hastings has said, "We love people sharing Netflix. That's a positive thing, not a negative thing." The company is counting on these viewers eventually becoming paying subscribers.
Competition is looming
Netflix has long been a target for the imitators, but has thus far kept its rivals at bay. But potential competition coming soon from the likes of Apple (AAPL -1.51%) and Disney (DIS -2.60%) can't be dismissed.
Apple recently revealed its competing service, Apple TV+, which will debut later this year. The company plans to include a host of original movies and television shows, as well as the opportunity to subscribe to third-party channels, including HBO, Starz, Showtime, and CBS All Access. Apple's platform will aggregate the programming, making it easy for viewers to discover the shows they want. Apple hasn't yet said exactly when the service will launch or how much it will cost.
Disney will debut its streaming competitor, Disney+, on Nov. 12, for a monthly cost of $6.99 or an annual fee of $69.99, and will offer more than 100 recent movies -- including recent blockbusters from Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Disney Studios. It will also include more than 400 library films and 7,500 television episodes, as well as original content from across its studios.
These competitors could present Netflix with its greatest challenges yet. But it won't be the first time the company has beaten back competition.
The right mix of programming
It may be Netflix's buzzworthy original programming that gets customers to try the service, but it's the licensed shows that keep them engaged. Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Maniac, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina attract a fair amount of attention, but there's a reason Netflix paid an estimated $100 million to renew the rights to broadcast fan-favorite sitcom Friends -- viewers like binge-worthy nostalgic series.
With competitors launching their own streaming services, some of this legacy programming that viewers love may be more difficult to come by. The challenge for Netflix will be to achieve the right level of licensed and original programming to keep its viewers coming back for more.
The bottom line
Netflix could conceivably get to 90 million U.S. subscribers, at the upper end of its estimates, in the coming five years. At current subscription prices, this could add between $3.2 billion and $4.7 billion to the company's coffers annually. It won't be a cakewalk, as issues with market saturation, competition, and licensed programming will only ramp up from here. Still, Netflix has met many challenges in the past and succeeded. Its track record suggests this time shouldn't be any different.