Netflix has ambitious plans for this year so it can produce something new next year: serious profits.
Investors have been fine with very little of those because Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings has said things would change after the company completed its global expansion. That's supposed to happen in 2016, with the introduction of the online video service to more than 100 new markets, including China, India and Indonesia. At the same time, Netflix will spend about $5 billion on programming, more than twice as much as HBO's estimated budget, and double its production of original series. If all goes as planned, Wall Street expects net income could soar to more than $500 million in 2017.
The popularity of the home-grown content -- Netflix builds its can't-get-it-anywhere-else pitches around shows like "Making a Murderer" and "Jessica Jones" -- will be key to Mr. Hastings making good on the profits pledge. Netflix has to lure enough new customers to pay for it all, and record the kind of gains that will persuade doubters the CEO's vision for the first worldwide online TV network can pan out.
"A lot of challenges await them, one of which is the amount of money they've earmarked for content production. It's startling," said Paul Verna, an analyst with eMarketer. The international rollout this year is "a huge potential windfall -- but it's a gamble."
Mr. Hastings may reveal details during the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he's scheduled to give a keynote speech on Wednesday. Netflix is already in more than 60 countries after launching in Japan, Australia and Southern Europe last year. It hasn't confirmed subscriber numbers but projected in October that it would add about 6 million domestically and 11 million outside the U.S. in 2015, reaching 74.3 million total.
Profits, though, have been relatively slim since it went public almost 14 years ago. This year, net income will be $137 million, the average of estimates compiled by Bloomberg. From there, Wall Street projects it could climb to $535 million in 2017 and surpass $1 billion by 2018 -- if the expansion works as planned. Spending is definitely on the rise; the company will devote eight times what CBS's Showtime will on entertainment content this year, according to data from the research firm MoffettNathanson.
Netflix was the top performer in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index last year, gaining 134%, compared with the benchmark's loss of 0.7%. On Monday, Netflix fell 3.9% to close at $109.96 in New York amid a global rout in the markets and a downgrade from Robert W. Baird & Co.
First talk show, new "Degrassi"
"International subscriber growth is what's holding the valuation up," said Laura Martin, an analyst with Needham & Co. who recommends buying the stock. The trick, she said, will be to keep adding customers at a steady enough clip to foot all the bills.
Most of the Netflix budget has in the past gone to buying older movies and shows, but the original-versus-imports balance is starting to shift. Netflix is at its most efficient when its money is devoted to its own series, films, stand-up comedy shows and more, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said at an investor conference in December.
The service will in 2016 debut its first talk show, a movie starring Brad Pitt, reboots of bygone hits "Full House" and "Degrassi" and the first offerings in French and Italian. It also has exclusive rights to releases from Walt Disney starting this year. New programs will join blockbusters including "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black."
To cover the costs, Netflix will have to not only attract more customers but keep raising prices, said Anthony DiClemente, an analyst with Nomura Securities International who recommends buying the stock. Netflix increased them up for new customers in the U.S. and Europe last year. Monthly plans in the U.S. range from $7.99 to $11.99. Mr. Hastings has hinted at hikes, saying the company will "be able to ask consumers for more" so it can keep investing in the original products they like.
Global subscribers could grow to 150 million by 2020, according to Mr. DiClemente's forecasts, with revenue growing at an annual rate of 24% to almost $20 billion.
Netflix can't hit those numbers without a successful expansion in Asia. The wild card is China, where the government requires foreign media ventures have local partners. Many potential allies already have competing businesses. Alibaba Group Holding recently acquired full control of Youku Tudou, one of the largest video streaming services in China, while Baidu and Tencent Holdings own popular video services.
Mr. Hastings has described the China effort as "still in the early stages" without providing details. With a growing middle- class and a movie market that's the second-largest by box-office receipts, the country is key.
"Driving home China is big for their share price," said Vivek Couto, executive director of Media Partners Asia, a consulting firm. "They are trying to crack China seriously."
-- Bloomberg News