Is Debt the Reason Behind Netflix's Flirtation With Advertising?

courtesy of Netflix Inc.

One of the hardest things for a digital service to accomplish is changing its monetization model. Switching from an advertising-free subscription service to a service that runs some advertising while maintaining its subscription fee may be the most difficult switch of all.

Digital streaming video giant Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX) has been testing the idea of presenting some advertising to subscribers and, as might be expected, including ads is not terribly popular. The ads Netflix is testing only promote its own programming. The company has no plans to accept outside ads.

Even the promo ads are not welcome by a significant proportion of Netflix subscribers. According to a new study by Hub Entertainment Research cited by CNBC, nearly a quarter of Netflix subscribers surveyed (23%) said they would cancel their subscriptions if the streaming services began presenting advertising. Less than half (41%) definitely or probably would maintain their subscriptions if the company begins showing ads.

But would subscribers actually do what they say? John Giegengack, a principal at Hub Entertainment, told CNBC:

What people say they will do in the future and what they actually do are often very different. So the exact percentage that said they would drop it is less important than the overall finding that even though Netflix invested so much money into its original programming, the fact that it’s ad-free is a key part of its value proposition to people. It’s almost part of Netflix’s identity to consumers.

Will Netflix roll the dice? Does it have a better choice?

The company said earlier this year that it planned to invest $8 billion in new, original programming in 2018. That investment is being supported in part by junk bonds. The latest $1.9 billion tranche, maturing in 2028 and paying a coupon of 5.875%, was sold in April. Netflix has said that it plans to continue supporting its cash needs with junk bonds because the after-tax cost of debt remains lower than the cost of equity, even with rising interest rates and lower corporate tax rates.

Analysts at research firm CreditSights expect Netflix to push out another tranche of junk bonds this year to finance a cash shortfall the firm estimates will total around $2.7 billion. At the end of the June quarter, Netflix’s total outstanding debt was $8.4 billion, against cash on hand of $3.9 billion.

Some of Netflix’s cash needs could come from increased EBITDA, but losing subscribers makes that problematic. If Netflix decides to go ahead with the promo ads, the company could find itself stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. It needs to grow earnings so that it can continue to fund original programming. And with Disney about to enter the streaming space, Netflix is about to come under even more pressure.

Netflix shares closed at $364.56 on Friday, in a 52-week range of $176.55 to $364.56. Shares traded down about 1% Monday morning at $360.86.

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