Wall Street to Hollywood: Spend Less on Streaming Shows, Winter is Coming | Analysis

·6-min read

As ominous earnings roll in for the last financial quarter, the players who run some of Hollywood’s big streaming services are flashing warning signs that content spending might be reined in fairly soon. Amid decades-high inflation and a looming recession that have severely curtailed what advertisers are willing to spend, big media companies on Thursday reported little-to-no gains in paid subscribers to platforms from Roku and NBCUniversal’s Peacock.

Which means those big-budget scripts sitting in the bottom drawer might need to be sold fast, before the funding goes away.

This is a vicious cycle: Studios are looking to save money without sacrificing quality or surefire hits. Which means services like Apple TV+, HBO Max, Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Paramount+ may need to make some tough choices in a year where content spending for those platforms could top $50 billion or more, according to analysts.

It is too early to tell exactly how much studios will cut back from their streaming fare — and such decisions hinge on how much money advertisers trim trying to lure belt-tightening consumers.

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Here were the highlights of Thursday’s earnings:

  • Comcast: The cable giant reported second-quarter revenue of $30 billion and an adjusted earnings per share of $1.01, a rise of 20.2% year over year as a result of a record quarter for the conglomerate in cable and a big numbers from its theme parks. However, Peacock didn’t grow a single subscriber.

  • Roku: The streamer posted overall revenue of $764 million, up 18% year over year, which couldn’t quite meet expectations due to a depressed ad sales market. It added another 1.8 million active accounts, bringing the company to a total of 63.1 million.

  • Imax: Blockbusters like “Top Gun: Maverick” fueled $74 million in revenue at the specialty-theater brand. Though, it still reported a $2.9 million loss due to COVID-19 closures in China. CEO Richard Gelfond said its his tickets sell at a premium, which is why market share is going up.

  • Apple: The subscription services business, which includes Apple TV+ and Apple Music, secured $19.6 billion in revenue for the the fiscal third quarter — down slightly from the year-ago period. The company, like Amazon, did not break out user data. Apple has more than 860 million paid subscribers, up 4% from the year-ago period.

  • Amazon: The consumer powerhouse beat Wall Street expectations with $121.2 billion of revenue, up 7 percent from a year earlier and well above projections. It still posted a $2 billion loss. Hard to tell how Prime Video did, but CFO Brian Olsavsky said the entire company’s ad business grew while competitors saw retreats.

But it was Roku and Peacock that Hollywood scribes, actors, producers, directors and below-the-line workers needed to pay attention to.

“We are going to make sure that the Roku Channel content spend… reflects the economic realities of the short term disruptions around macro-economic factors,” said Roku Chief Financial Officer Steve Louden. “It’s important.”

Wall Street was quick to react.

Shares of Roku plunged immediately after the earnings report, sending the stock down 26% in post-market trading. That’s a strong indication some $3 billion will be wiped from the video streaming company’s market value by the time the New York Stock Exchange opens for business on Friday.

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“Add that to (Thursday’s) Peacock losses for zero growth,” said LightShed Partners media and technology analyst Brandon Ross. “Content gonna feel some pain too.”

Indeed, Peacock, with subscriptions staying relatively flat at just 13 million, operated at a loss of $467 million. Peacock in the first quarter reported a loss of $456 million, but still was able to add four million new paid subscribers to bring the streamer’s total to 13 million while overall active users hit 28 million. Meanwhile monthly active users dipped to 27 million.

Thursday’s earnings cavalcade also saw Apple and Amazon release results, though very little information can be gleaned from the reports. However, they too noted how the ad market was softening.

Netflix reported on July 19 that it suffered a second straight quarter of customer losses as the streaming giant combats increased competition from studio rivals and inflation pressure with a loss of 970,000 subscribers. Though, at least at the time, co-chief executives’ Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos projected a million subscriber additions in the third quarter, adding to the 220.67 million subscribers globally.  But that was still much less than Wall Street wanted.

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Anybody who works in Hollywood will need to pay attention next week to see how this trend plays out. Warner Bros. Discovery, the second-largest U.S. entertainment conglomerate behind Disney, reports earnings on Aug 4. The same day will see Paramount Global and AMC Networks release results. Meanwhile, Disney quarterly earnings come out on Aug. 10.

Endeavor Chief Executive Ari Emanuel may have the last word when he rolls out financial results on Aug. 15, and last quarter he was pretty adamant about not seeing any future deals collapse. Emanuel said in May that clients are locked in for productions through 2023, and doesn’t think there will be less spending. “Think of us as the ultimate proxy for content growth.” Will that still be the case in a few weeks?

He was referring to how Hollywood moguls who run the industry’s dominant streaming services sent out a surprising message after reporting first-quarter earnings that they were considering a slowdown in content spending for exclusive new streaming series and movies.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav (“We will not overspend”) and Disney’s Bob Chapek (“very carefully watching our content cost growth”) admitted recognizing the limits of streaming subscriber growth. Sarandos and Paramount’s Bob Bakish weren’t exactly telling writers and directors they’d be signing blank checks.

“I’m old enough to have gone through several recessions,” said Corey Martin, managing partner and chair of Granderson Des Rocher’s Entertainment Finance Practice. “And in my prior experience, there seems to be kind of attempted denial in Hollywood: ‘It’s not gonna affect us.’ But it always does. These recessions seem to go from Wall Street to Main Street, and Hollywood tends to come next.”

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