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Netflix is trying to prove to the world that it’s all grown up

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

In the early stages of life, a key metric is growth. As children age, their parents measure precisely how much they are flourishing in size, using charts to keep close eyes on and document the journey.

But when children mature into young adults, physical growth is no longer the barometer used to judge progress. Other metrics come into play.

Netflix is trying to persuade Wall Street that it is now all grown up. After squeezing out millions of additional subscribers via its password sharing crackdown and through the introduction of cheaper advertiser-supported plans, the streamer knows that its growth spurts are coming to an end — and now it wants investors to stop obsessing over those pesky membership numbers and instead focus on other metrics.

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“In our early days, when we had little revenue or profit, membership growth was a strong indicator of our future potential,” Netflix told shareholders Thursday as it reported quarterly earnings. “But now we’re generating very substantial profit and free cash flow. We are also developing new revenue streams like advertising and our extra member feature, so memberships are just one component of our growth.”

To that end, Netflix said that it will no longer report quarterly subscriber numbers, starting in 2025. Alas, the metric that Wall Street has forever judged Netflix on — the metric that prompted legacy media companies to burn endless piles of cash in their bids to compete with the streamer — will be retired. It’s going the way of the woolly mammoth, Netflix said. Goodbye!

The decision to shut off transparency on the metric represents a significant turning point in the streaming revolution. For years, Netflix has prided itself on being extraordinarily transparent. Now it is aiming to hold its cards closer to its chest. And given that streaming giant is the trendsetter in the space, one could expect that other media companies will be inspired by the company’s move and also opt to cease reporting such data.

To be fair, what Netflix is saying isn’t necessarily off base either. As the company shifts its business model away from subscriptions and toward advertising and other revenue streams, it makes sense to consider how much time users are spending on the service. The more content a user consumes on Netflix, the more likely they are to continue paying for the service, and the more money Netflix then makes from that single subscriber (particularly if they are in an advertiser-supported tier).

“We’re focused on revenue and operating margin as our primary financial metrics — and engagement (i.e. time spent) as our best proxy for customer satisfaction,” Netflix underscored in its letter to shareholders.

Regardless, less transparency in an already opaque industry is not ideal. The walled garden of streaming already lacks the same detailed viewership data that Nielsen collects on linear television broadcasters. Now, visibility into the streaming world will get even dimmer. Instead, Netflix said it will “announce major subscriber milestones” as it crosses them. But that’s a very general statement and it is unclear what the company defines as a milestone.

The announcement from Netflix managed to overshadow its otherwise stellar quarter. The company handily beat exceptions and added a staggering 9.3 million subscribers, meaning it now boasts nearly 270 million in total. Netflix also beat analyst expectations on both earnings and revenue.

But it wasn’t all good news. Netflix forecasted its subscriber growth to be lower in quarter two, chalking it up to “typical seasonality.” That led the stock to slide nearly 5% in after-hours trading.

Whether “typical seasonality” is solely to blame, or whether the streamer is simply starting to hit a ceiling, is hard to tell. Perhaps it is a mix of both. Whatever the cause, the stock sliding on the less-than-ideal outlook is a prime example of why Netflix wants Wall Street to stop focusing on its subscriber numbers. And, in one year’s time, investors won’t have a choice.

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