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Netflix’s subscriber growth, stock zapped as pandemic eases

ap photo This Aug. 13, 2020 photo shows a logo for Netflix on a remote control in Portland, Ore. Netflix’s rapid subscriber growth is slowing far faster than anticipated

SAN RAMON, Calif. — Netflix’s pandemic-fueled subscriber growth is slowing far faster than anticipated as people who have been cooped at home are able to get out and do other things again.

The video-streaming service added 4 million more worldwide subscribers from January through March, its smallest gain during that three-month period in four years.

The performance reported Tuesday was about 2 million fewer subscribers than both management and analysts had predicted Netflix would add during the first quarter.

It marked a huge comedown from the same time last year when Netflix added nearly 16 million subscribers. That came just as governments around the world imposed lockdowns that created a huge captive audience for the leading video-streaming service.

Signaling that the trend is continuing, Netflix forecast an increase of just 1 million worldwide subscribers in the current April-June period, down from an increase of 10 million subscribers at the same time last year.

“It’s just a little wobbly right now,” Netflix co-CEO Reed Hastings said during a discussion of the company’s results streamed Tuesday.

The poor showing to start the year rattled investors, causing the Los Gatos, California, company’s stock to drop by more than 8 percent in extended trading, even though Netflix’s revenue hit analyst targets and its profit exceeded estimates.

Netflix earned $1.71 billion, or $3.75 per share, more than doubling from a year ago. Revenue climbed 24 percent from the same time last year to $7.16 billion.

The inevitable slowdown in subscriber growth had been widely telegraphed by Netflix’s management in repeated reminders that its gains were a pandemic-driven anomaly.

Now that a large swath of the U.S. population has been vaccinated, people are able to move around more freely and are finding other diversions besides watching TV series and movies on Netflix.

“It all boils down to COVID,” Spencer Neumann, Netflix’s chief financial officer, said Tuesday.

The big question is how big this year’s decline will be from last year’s full-year increase of 37 million worldwide subscribers — by far the biggest since Netflix expanded its DVD-by-rental service into video streaming 14 years ago.

Third Bride analyst Scott Kessler speculated this year’s sluggish start may pressure Netflix management to make changes in its pricing or fine tune its strategy to help boost its growth from one quarter to the next. “Or will the company continue to focus on the longer term?” Kessler wondered.

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