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4 Signs Streaming's Best Growth Is All In the Past (Except for 1 Company)

The Motley Fool logo The Motley Fool 12/9/2022 James Brumley
4 Signs Streaming's Best Growth Is All In the Past (Except for 1 Company) © Provided by The Motley Fool 4 Signs Streaming's Best Growth Is All In the Past (Except for 1 Company)

It's been a busy week for the streaming industry -- but not necessarily in a good way. Without intending to do so, several of the business's key players are now waving a collective white flag. More to the point, these companies are now fully realizing that further subscriber growth isn't going to be easy to come by.

That's not to suggest streaming platforms are doomed to failure; most will survive in one form or another. It is to suggest, however, that investors should keep their expectations in check. On-demand video won't be the high-growth engine it was presumed to be as recently as a couple of years ago. It's a problem for most of these outfits simply because the bulk of streaming operations remain unprofitable -- they can't afford to do "more of the same."

Here's a closer look at the four most recent developments indicating major headwinds await.

1. Consolidation is afoot

We've already seen some of this at the corporate level, when Discovery acquired HBO Max parent Warner Bros. from AT&T to become Warner Bros. Discovery (NASDAQ: WBD). There's much more dealmaking in the cards, however. Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell has reiterated that he expects Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS) to pay a sizable price for the one-third of Hulu it doesn't already own when it gets a chance to buy it in 2024.

We're seeing intracompany consolidation of streaming services as well. Warner Bros. Discovery intends to meld HBO Max and Discovery+ into a super service likely to be just called "Max" in the coming year. At the same time, Paramount (NASDAQ: PARA) CEO Bob Bakish commented at a media conference on Tuesday: "It doesn't make sense to run [movie channel] Showtime as a 100% stand-alone organization." He was speaking about Showtime's streaming app as well as its traditional cable channel.

That's still just the beginning. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hulu's founding chief and former WarnerMedia head Jason Kilar said he sees even more company consolidation ahead, paring down the total number of streaming platforms to only two or three major names. It's a stunning prediction given how young the business is. But all the mergers and pairings seen thus far suggest Kilar's expectation holds water. These unions are necessary to create the scale these platforms need to achieve viability.

2. HBO Max returns to Amazon Prime

In August 2021, Warner Bros. Discovery removed HBO Max as a subscription option from within the Amazon Prime interface. Warner wanted more control of these customer relationships. The company also (presumably) didn't want to share a cut of these subscribers' revenue with Amazon.

As of this week, HBO Max is once again available via Amazon Prime, at least within the U.S. 

The terms of the deal weren't disclosed. Neither was Warner Bros. Discovery's motivation. The rekindled relationship, however, materializes after Q3's anemic growth of 2.8 million subscriptions to HBO, HBO Max, and Discovery+.

The company needs better growth than that.

If this was the only instance of a streaming service recognizing its draw wasn't strong enough on its own, it might be dismissible. But it's not. YouTube and YouTube TV returned as an option within Roku's interface late last year. When AT&T's streaming cable service AT&T TV was a thing, it too came back to Roku in early 2020 after the company removed its app from the Roku lineup a few months prior.

It's not that streaming companies can't grow their businesses without middlemen. But, given these boomerangs, it certainly seems to help despite the cost.

3. Content spending still (mostly) on the rise

Bakish also explained this past week that Paramount's spending on streaming content is about to expand in a big way. Reiterating previous guidance on the matter, Paramount plans on spending $6 billion for streaming shows and movies in 2024, well up from last year's $2 billion.

There's no assurance that much spending will draw the number of paying customers the company needs to drag its direct-to-consumer business out of the red and into the black. Maybe it will.

Regardless, the big budget pokes the wounds inflicted on shareholders of other streaming players also trapped by spending that far exceeds revenue. Walt Disney's streaming business lost a record-breaking $1.5 billion last quarter.  Warner Bros. Discovery's direct-to-consumer arm also remains in the red.

At least Disney indicates it will start paring back its streaming spending. Given the industry's close correlation between subscriber growth and content outlays, though, that may well crimp much-needed subscriber growth. It's possible the current math -- pricing power versus required investments in content -- just doesn't make enough sense for streaming platforms as they operate right now.

4. A price point for every possible customer

Finally, although it's not going to happen anytime soon, on Tuesday Netflix's (NASDAQ: NFLX) co-CEO Ted Serandos explained he foresees a time when his company offers several different ad-supported options, catering to various degrees of consumers' tolerance for advertisements.

On the surface, it seems savvy, and it may well end up being a brilliant move. It's certainly worked out for Comcast's Peacock. That service comes in free, ad-subsidized, and ad-free tiers, and it added roughly 3 million subscribers just since September to bring its headcount up to 18 million now.

Such a move also points to waning pricing power, however, perhaps tainting the premium brand image Netflix has worked so hard to build. It makes the service look like most other streaming platforms, and look more like the advertising-centric cable television people were trying to move away from when they cut the cord and signed up for Netflix.

In other words, multiple price points for more and more streaming services positions them as mere commodities in consumers' eyes, making it easy to cancel any of them.

One exception

Again, none of this is to imply the streaming industry will follow in the footsteps of Kodak cameras, VCRs, and pay phones. If nothing else, streaming video is just too convenient to let go of now.

Take another look at what's been said just this week, though. The business as a whole is clearly regrouping now that subscriber growth is slowing down much sooner than expected. The reimagined industry isn't nearly as impressive as envisioned just three years ago, before all these outfits turned up the heat on their on-demand efforts. Investors should adjust their expectations accordingly.

That being said, there is one standout within this field. While it's certainly got fresh challenges of its own, Netflix is the only major streaming operation (stand-alone or otherwise) that's consistently profitable. If nothing else, not being forced to be quite as stingy as its rivals when it comes to spending on content is a significant competitive advantage. It also doesn't hurt that Netflix is still considered the leader of streaming in terms of loyalty as well as headcount.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. James Brumley has positions in AT&T and Warner Bros. Discovery. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Amazon.com, Netflix, Roku, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and Warner Bros. Discovery and recommends the following options: long January 2024 $145 calls on Walt Disney and short January 2024 $155 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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