I don't know if you've noticed, but streaming video giant Netflix ( NFLX -3.76% ) published podcasts to complement its original content for most of 2019. The company has been oddly quiet about this effort, to the point that it took me eight months to notice. Should we Netflix investors pay more attention to its podcast series, now that fellow media-streaming expert Spotify ( SPOT -5.62% ) has proved the business value of these audio shows?
Every month, Netflix sends out an email to journalists to offer some highlights of what's coming to and going away from the streaming service in the following month. This email is the source of those ubiquitous "Everything That's Coming to Netflix In November!" articles, which never live up to their names because the emails never tried to provide a complete list. As a recipient of these media-focused emails, I tend to skim them and shake my head over the headlines they spark, then move on.
But I noticed something new in Wednesday's December update. New to me, that is -- Netflix has been including these rundowns since the March mail in mid-February. Yup, the company publishes several podcasts on the regular, and there's a growing selection of Netflix originals that have been paired with an audio show that basically discusses the video content.
How Netflix serves up podcasts
The first few podcast lists detailed the same four podcast series, simply adding new episodes to a handful of established audio shows.
None of these were tied to specific pieces of original content. Two of the four shows had various hosts talking the listener through what's new on Netflix, what's popular right now, and similar "find a show"-type angles. One dug into the real-world background stories and research behind Netflix's crime dramas, and the last one focused on black comedians.
The company added two new series in June, providing the director's commentary to a few hand-picked Netflix originals and allowing the stars of various shows to interview themselves. Other changes followed, including the first pure single-show podcast in August where Stranger Things gained a behind-the-scenes talk show. Orange Is the New Black followed suit in October, and the December update that finally caught my eye adds unique podcasts for The Irishman and the third season of The Crown.
What started as a simple promotional tool appears to be morphing into an additional channel of unique content. And why not? All the cool kids are doing it.
Following Spotify's lead
Spotify is sinking $500 million into acquisitions in the podcast space, locking down popular podcast creators to generate exclusive content for Spotify's platform. The effort is paying off in spades.
"Streaming was to Netflix as podcasting is to Spotify," Spotify CFO (and former Netflix CFO) Barry McCarthy said in October's third-quarter earnings call. The company's subscriber count grew 30% year over year in that quarter, led by an even faster increase in the premium subscriber category.
Why is this news, eight months later?
Again, maybe it's just news to me and everyone else already noticed. But maybe not. Netflix's podcasts are strangely underpromoted.
You know those incomplete "Everything Coming to Netflix In [Month]" articles, right? Well, they tend to skip over the podcasts. Spot-checking three such articles today, none of them mentioned the Netflix podcasts at all. So maybe it's no surprise that mainstream consumers aren't talking about this yet.
Investors aren't doing much better, though. A thorough search of Netflix's investor relations materials shows that the company hasn't mentioned the word "podcast" in any investor-related context, ever. Nothing in earnings reports, the word is absent from official transcripts of the earnings calls -- Netflix's management is ghosting the whole podcast idea.
What's next for Netflix's podcast activities?
I'm not suggesting that Netflix is about to go berserk with podcast ideas, adding an audio show in support of every new series or movie in the video service. If the Stranger Things and Orange podcasts moved the financial needle to a significant degree, we should have heard management talking about them already.
But the company is indeed stepping up its podcast production, perhaps to test the waters for a wider launch. It is possible that a properly supported publishing strategy with a strong marketing push could make a difference. I wouldn't be surprised to see Netflix experimenting with that idea around the Irishman and The Crown podcasts in December, for example.
Netflix really is taking a more serious look at podcasting at the moment. The new shows next month are tied to some of the highest-quality content that Netflix has to offer, and minor improvements to the messaging (we media types got service-agnostic links to the December podcasts rather than direct links to Spotify or Apple Podcasts -- for the first time) make me think that higher-ups in the organization are keeping an eye on this project now.
Podcasts won't change the game for Netflix in 2019, but investors should pay closer attention to the company's efforts in this red-hot media channel.