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Why Netflix is suddenly losing subscribers

Reed Hastings used to have streaming to himself. That’s over now.

Reed Hastings standing in front of a large sign that says “Netflix.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in 2019.
Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images for Netflix

Netflix has spent the past decade leading the world in streaming. Now everyone is catching up.

That’s the most obvious takeaway from Netflix’s stunning admission on Tuesday afternoon: Instead of adding more than 2 million subscribers in the first quarter of the year, as it predicted three months ago, it ended up losing 200,000. Even worse: Next quarter, Netflix expects to lose another 2 million subscribers. Netflix’s stock is now collapsing, down 25 percent.

Here’s one way you can tell how big a deal this: In an earnings call after announcing his company’s results, Co-CEO Reed Hastings said the company was going to eventually add an advertising-supported version of the service, which would be cheaper than its current ad-free version. Hastings has insisted for years that Netflix didn’t need to sell ads and that it was a better service because it didn’t do that.

And here’s more context: The last time Netflix actually lost subscribers was 2011 — after it bungled a move from DVD-mailing (go ahead and Google “Qwikster”) and tried hiking prices at the same time.

Since then, Netflix has been on a tear: It got into streaming, with Hollywood’s mostly unwitting help, long before Hollywood figured out streaming was going to be really big. Then Hollywood figured it out and launched a gazillion more streaming services.

Which brings us to today. Netflix spent years telling investors that the fact that Disney, Hulu, HBO, Paramount, Peacock, Apple, Amazon, and many more competitors were following in its footsteps — and, crucially, taking stuff that used to run on Netflix and running it on their own services — was fine. Now, the company says, it turns out that people are watching some of those other streaming services, too.

If you want to spin it positively — and Netflix does — you can argue that plenty of people are still watching Netflix. The company’s investor letter includes a chart showing that Netflix’s share of “total TV time” in the US has actually increased in the last year. But it’s also a chart that shows just how much competition the company is facing.

Screenshot via Netflix investor letter

But, again: Those competitors aren’t just a problem because they’re trying to take away Netflix customers’ time and subscription dollars. They’re also a problem because they’re taking away content Netflix used to have.

In the old days, Hollywood was willing to let Netflix have tons of its old TV shows and movies because it didn’t think many people wanted to pay to stream that stuff on the internet. Now the big film and TV companies have figured out they were wrong. So they have taken back a lot of stuff that used to run on Netflix and put it on their own services — Friends is on HBO Max, for instance; The Office is on Peacock; and all the Disney stuff is on Disney+. And, crucially, they are competing with Netflix for new projects. So Netflix has seen a lot of valuable content disappear, while at the same time, it has gotten harder to find great new projects.

When you look back, you can see some of this coming: A year ago, for instance, Netflix started getting into video games — a sign that the company was worried that its streaming video offering alone may not be enough to attract and retain customers. More recently, the company has started cracking down on password sharers — something Netflix used to tolerate and even celebrate.

But not even Netflix saw the bottom dropping out like this. The best-case scenario is this one: Even with this quarter’s loss and next quarter’s loss, it will have 219 million subscribers — way more than any of its competitors. And Netflix is no longer burning a gazillion dollars a year and asking Wall Street to lend it more, so it won’t have problems financing new shows and movies to show its remaining customers. But if it wants to find new subscribers — and keep the ones it has — it will have to find shows they really, really like. And that is going to be harder than ever.

Update, 7:30 pm: This story was updated to include news that Netflix plans to sell an ad-supported version of its streaming service.