Netflix Tops 200 Million Subscribers Amid Pandemic

The Crown Season 4-Princess Diana (EMMA CORRIN) and Prince Charles (JOSH O CONNOR)
Netflix

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in 'The Crown.'

The streaming giant beat Wall Street's expectations with 8.5 million subscriber additions during the fourth quarter of 2020.

Netflix faced more competition than ever before in 2020, but the streamer is showing little sign of flagging, ending the year with an unprecedented nearly 204 million global subscribers.

It turns out, the pandemic is a more powerful force than the threat of new rivals. Lockdowns around the world helped to significantly boost streaming sign-ups across the board, and Netflix benefitted from the industry’s overall boom, adding more than 36 million subscribers during the year. Though most of its new subscribers came during the first half of 2020, it added 8.51 million subscribers during the fourth quarter, more than the 6 million that Wall Street investors were expecting.

Netflix usually performs well during the final three months of the year, when it is known for unleashing some of its most-anticipated programming. The most recent quarter was no exception, ushering in the fourth season of The Crown and introducing viewers to new shows The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton. Netflix has said that both of the latter series were hits with its audience, becoming some of the most-watched titles in its history.

Although Netflix remains the clear streaming leader, investors have started to question just how long its dominance can last. Hollywood has spent the past few years mobilizing for the streaming future. Disney, NBCUniversal, WarnerMedia and Discovery all have introduced streaming services where they’re offering high-profile originals and classic hits that once made up the bread-and-butter of Netflix streaming viewership. Netflix, meanwhile, has all but exhausted its potential market in the U.S., where it recently raised prices, and has turned its attention to attracting subscribers in markets around the world where its service is not quite as entrenched.

Netflix said that 83 percent of its new subscribers in 2020 came from outside the U.S. and Canada. During the fourth quarter, the company's biggest subscriber gains came from the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, where it added 4.46 million paying members. Netflix added just 860,000 new subscribers in the U.S. and Canada during the period.

In its letter to shareholders, Netflix noted that it had its biggest year ever at the same time that Disney+ was quickly attracting some 87 million subscribers. Co-CEO Reed Hastings elaborated on the rival service during a Q&A for investors. "It's super impressive what Disney's done," he said. "It's going to be great for the world that Disney and Netflix are competing show-by-show, movie-by-movie. We're very fired up about catching them in family animation — maybe eventually passing them, we'll see, it's a long way to go just to catch them — and maintaining our lead in general entertainment that's so stimulating like Bridgerton, which I don't think you're going to see on Disney anytime soon."

Netflix’s advantage is its sizable content budget, which has allowed it to ramp up production significantly compared to its rivals. The company started the year by informing subscribers that it would release 71 films in 2021, equating to at least one new movie every week. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos clarified during the Q&A that that's likely the low end of films that Netflix will release in 2021.

Though it's not cheap for Netflix to produce as much original programming as it does, the company said Tuesday that it expects to be cashflow positive in 2021 and, in another major milestone, that it won't need to raise external financing to fund its day-to-day operations. The news helped push Netflix shares, which closed the day at $501.77, up more than 10 percent after-hours on the Nasdaq.

Netflix earned $6.6 billion in revenue during the quarter, in line with analyst predictions, and reported profits of $1.19 per share.