COMMENT:

This looks to be the year in which Netflix looks to shift from its role as a debt-generating machine to a business measured by financial performance.

Until now, Netflix has pursued an aggressive growth strategy, which has seen the business attract more than 137 million customers worldwide, while also accumulating a hefty debt pile of about US$14 billion ($20 billion).

Much of this expense has been attributed to the programming costs that have allowed Netflix to churn out a seemingly never-ending stream of content. But is this a sustainable business model?

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Jonathan Frank, an executive at FX, the network behind shows like Atlanta, Fargo and American Horror Story, told the Herald he doesn't see a clear path to an endgame in the strategy behind the Netflix approach.

"They clearly have a lot of good shows, but they have way more 'not good' shows," he says.

"It's like throwing spaghetti against the wall. Some will invariably stick but a lot are going to fall down on the floor.

"I just don't understand that concept of saying, 'sure, there could be 80 shows that we are embarrassed by, but as long as there are 20 that really stand out, that's fine.'"

Jonathan Frank is the executive vice president of current series and production at FX. Photo/Supplied.
Jonathan Frank is the executive vice president of current series and production at FX. Photo/Supplied.

As a veteran entertainment programmer, Frank says he just can't see how the Netflix model can be sustainable in the long run without a bottomless pit of investor money.

"Anyone can see that Wall Street gives Silicon Valley a pass. There's a long history of people investing a lot of money in companies that lose a tremendous amount of money and even companies that show no path towards how they can make money in the future," he says.

"There's this notion that any one Silicon Valley company has the potential to become a monopoly, and once it becomes a monopoly, they'll make money at some point. I think that's what Wall Street is hoping or thinking will happen to Netflix."

End of the bull run

The rise of Netflix coincided with the longest bull run in market history, but this now looks to have run out of steam.

Global uncertainty is spooking investors, and that means they aren't quite so willing to pour money into businesses as they were before.

A report this month from the Washington Post found that even blue-chip companies now find themselves having to pay more to borrow as investors fret about the economy.

"One thing that could be worrisome is if corporate debt markets continue to be choppy – if borrowing costs more, you might be less willing to fund a new project," Zachary Chavis, portfolio manager at Sage Advisory Services, told the Washington Post. "That could feed into the economy over the next 12 to 18 months."

This doesn't only impact Netflix. Tech stocks across the board have taken hits in recent months as investors take a more cautious approach, worried about things such as trade wars, the Brexit saga and international tension.

The point here is that Netflix needs to change – or at least show the beginnings of a strategy to cut down its over-reliance on debt.

Eye on the balance sheet

Only a few weeks into 2019, we've already seen hints that Netflix is starting to shift its gaze from the subscriber bar graphs to the balance sheet.

The most significant move was the recent increase in charges for all 58 million US customers, as well other subscribers around the world who pay in US dollars.

New Zealand has so far dodged the bullet on the price hike, but it wouldn't be altogether surprising if local subscribers did receive an email in the coming months, informing them that they would have to fork out a bit extra for the service.

A more subtle, but equally important, shift lies in the recent advent of artificial intelligence technology that enables streaming services to crack down on account sharing between friends and family members.

Should Netflix tap into such a service, it would allow the company to address criticism about how many of its so-called users actually pay for its service.

Netflix has accumulated a hefty debt pile of about US$14 billion ($20 billion). Photo / 123RF
Netflix has accumulated a hefty debt pile of about US$14 billion ($20 billion). Photo / 123RF

By nudging at least some account sharers towards paying for what they watch, the company could increase the revenue it earns from its content to some degree at least.

Another potential revenue earner emerged last year, when Netflix ran an experiment by playing promos for its original programming between episodes of shows being watched by subscribers.

The company quickly batted away suggestions that these could eventually be turned into ad slots, but that hasn't stopped analysts from speculating that it could be a good way for the company to increase its revenue without pestering its customers too much.

As competition in streaming continues to increase, Netflix can no longer rely only on the vague possibility that it may eventually become a monopoly – particularly when investors are more cautious than they have been in previous years.

In much the same way that Google and Facebook are today measured on their revenue and financial results rather than solely on growth figures and hype, the pressure will grow on Netflix to convince investors it can eventually dig its way out of that enormous debt pile.

In other words, it needs to stop throwing spaghetti at the wall and start serving up something a little more palatable - if not to subscribers, then at least to investors.