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Netflix Is Now a Real TV Firm: Slow-Growing but Printing Money

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Netflix is looking more and more like an old-fashioned television company. In other words, it’s growing slowly but producing lots of cash. The video-streaming giant reported what can only be described as anemic growth in the first quarter. Revenue rose 3.7%, which is the kind of growth rate we associate with traditional TV firms like Fox Corp. or Paramount Global. Its subscriber count expanded 4.9% globally, although growth in North America was basically nonexistent. The good news is that Netflix’s free cash flow—the most accurate measure of profitability—surged to $2.1 billion in the quarter compared with $802 million a year ago. Netflix even started buying back stock in the quarter! 

If you were a conspiracy theorist, you might imagine Netflix was trying to distract us from its unimpressive revenue and subscriber growth numbers with news today that “later this year” it would shut down its DVD mail-order business, just as it shifted the focus of its fourth-quarter earnings away from that period’s tepid numbers to the news that co-CEO Reed Hastings was stepping down. Let’s not get distracted—DVD revenues last year were 0.5% of Netflix’s total, so who cares? The first-quarter revenue numbers were a tad worse than Netflix had projected for this quarter, and it forecast even weaker second-quarter growth. Netflix upgraded the amount of free cash flow it expects to generate this year, though, which means it’s more profitable than it expected. Still, the weak top-line growth suggests Netflix’s introduction of advertising isn’t having much impact yet.

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