Netflix faces challenges on path to 'Internet TV' dominance

Troy Wolverton / San Jose Mercury News /

Published Nov 8, 2012 at 04:00AM

Depending on whom you ask, Netflix is either a company that’s poised for a remarkable resurgence or a washed-up has-been whose best days are behind it.

While both sides have a legitimate case to make, corporate raider Carl Icahn is betting on a rebound.

While they’re at odds with Icahn, Netflix’s managers — and some analysts — are optimistic about the company’s prospects. The company is basically inventing what it calls “Internet television,” getting smarter about how it operates and is investing in international markets to position itself for long-term growth.

“Internet TV is the future of television, and we are leading the charge,” Reed Hastings and David Wells, Netflix’s chief executive and chief financial officers, respectively, said in a letter to shareholders last month.

But other analysts and investors question Netflix’s long-term prospects and its ability to ever resume the heady growth it recorded for much of the past decade. They see a company struggling to control the costs of its streaming business while letting its older but highly profitable DVD business wither away.

Netflix’s management is very clear about the company’s strategy, “but I don’t think it’s a good one,” said Michael Pachter, a financial analyst who covers the company for Wedbush Securities, adding that he sees only two paths ahead: It’s either going to be “a high-growth, unprofitable business or a low-growth profitable one.”

The future prospects of the streaming video company have been much debated in the wake of Icahn’s move last week to take a 10 percent stake in the Los Gatos, Calif., company.

Icahn said Netflix was undervalued and could be worth more if it were sold to another company. Other investors seemed to agree, and Netflix shares soared immediately after. Those shares have been in the dumps since last year when Netflix stumbled through a succession of setbacks. It angered users with a price increase and an aborted attempt to sever its DVD business. Then it turned off investors by announcing an aggressive international expansion that would depress profits. More recently, it aggravated investors by failing to sign up subscribers at the robust rate it predicted at the start of the year.

For optimists, the company’s struggles are simply an indication of the challenging task it has taken on: transforming its business from a largely subscription DVD service focused on the United States market to an international streaming video provider. They see a company that is positioning itself well in that new market.

Apps to watch Netflix videos are available on a range of devices that its competitors can’t match. Netflix subscribers are spending increasing amounts of time watching video through the service. And the company’s content partners are starting to recognize the value Netflix gives them by offering an audience for their older movies and television shows, analysts said.

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