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After another rough quarter, could Netflix become an acquisition target?

After NFLX stock plunged 67% this year, some are speculating another company could swoop it up. These are the most likely buyers.

After another rough quarter, could Netflix become an acquisition target?
[Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images]

At the beginning of 2022, streaming giant Netflix seemed to be riding high. Over the previous two years, thanks in large part to the pandemic, it had added a remarkable 55 million subscribers, making it by far the most popular streaming service, all while steadily increasing the price those subscribers paid. While its stock price was down slightly from the all-time high it had reached in the fall of 2021, it was still near $600 a share, giving the company a market cap of almost $270 billion. When people talked about Netflix as one of the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) stocks, few blinked at its inclusion in a group of the world’s most powerful and valuable tech companies.

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Today, no one would put Netflix in that group. Since the start of the year, the company’s stock price has fallen by 67%. Its subscriber growth has not only stalled, but reversed: It lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter and, on its earnings call Tuesday, said it lost nearly 1 million subscribers in the second. The expansion of HBO Max (soon to be Discovery+/HBO Max) and Disney+, along with Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Apple+, and the addition of a host of new streaming services (including Peacock and Paramount+) means Netflix now faces far more competition for viewers and for content. And high inflation and concerns about slower growth are now raising the prospect of a “streaming recession,” with users dropping streaming services in order to cut costs. 

In response, Netflix has done a small number of layoffs (rare in the company’s history) and recently unveiled plans for something it had previously always avoided: an ad-supported lower-cost subscription, with Microsoft handling the ads. But investors have remained skeptical, and while the market was happy with today’s earnings report, which saw revenue grow 9% and the company lose fewer subscribers than the 2 million it had previously projected, there’s still a very long way for Netflix to go to get back to where it was just a few months ago. All of which has given rise to speculation from some on Wall Street that Netflix could become an acquisition target.

It’s not a crazy idea. The case for a big company to acquire Netflix is straightforward: It’s now solidly profitable, has 220 million subscribers, and its stock price has fallen so far that the company is now priced more like a value stock than a growth stock. While it’s still worth a hefty $87 billion (meaning any deal would likely cost around $100 billion, when you factor in a typical acquisition premium), that’s not an outrageous price for a company that’s on pace to earn around $5 billion this year. 

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As for Netflix itself, while its ambition was always to become the dominant player in the space and control its own destiny, operating as part of a bigger company with other sizable revenue streams would bring certain advantages: easier access to capital if you need it, a certain degree of insulation from investors’ ever-changing moods, and, depending on the acquirer, potential synergies with other parts of the company’s business. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that every other major player in the streaming space is part of a bigger, more diversified firm.

Netflix management has, unsurprisingly, said nothing about putting the company on the sales block; and all things being equal, it likely would prefer to stay independent. But if a great offer came along, it would be hard to say no. The interesting question, then, is who might be able to make that offer. And the truth is, when you go down the list of potential acquirers, there are significant obstacles to almost all of them buying Netflix. 

Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Comcast

At first glance, the companies that should be most interested in Netflix are those that are already big players in the streaming space—since acquiring Netflix would dramatically boost their subscriber numbers and, not coincidentally, eliminate one of their major competitors. But that kind of move would almost certainly be blocked by regulators on antitrust grounds. There’s Disney, which owns not just Disney+ but also a controlling stake in Hulu; Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns HBO Max; and Comcast, which owns Peacock as well as a movie studio, cable channels, and cable networks. A proposed acquisition by any of them would almost certainly have no chance of getting done. 

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Amazon and Google

Regulatory worries, plus economics, also make it unlikely that Amazon or Google would make a run at Netflix. Amazon actually tried to buy Netflix back in 1998. But today, streaming is primarily a perk it offers to get people to sign up for Prime. Given that, the economics of spending $100 billion to add 200 million new subscribers (many of whom are presumably already Prime customers) seem a little dubious. On top of this, Amazon is facing considerable pressure from antitrust regulators and Congress; and adding Netflix would draw more attention of the kind the company doesn’t need right now.

The same is true of Alphabet. While in theory you could imagine certain synergies between YouTube (which Alphabet owns) and Netflix, in practice the two businesses have little in common, with YouTube being primarily an ad-driven business propelled by content that Google does not have to pay for. And Alphabet, too, is unlikely to make a massive deal that would raise antitrust concerns.

Apple

A more interesting, and plausible, suitor would be Apple. Apple has tons of cash (around $200 billion) on its balance sheet, and a market cap of $2 trillion, so paying for Netflix would not be an issue. And while Apple TV+ is mildly successful—it just won its first Oscar—it still feels very much like an afterthought next to Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, or even Hulu. Buying Netflix could change that overnight. 

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And yet when you really look at it, it’s hard to see Apple stepping up. First, it’s not really clear that adding Netflix would bring any synergistic benefits to Apple’s core businesses. Apple’s so profitable that even at $5 billion a year, Netflix wouldn’t boost the bottom line much. And there’s also a simple cultural issue, which is that historically, Apple has always avoided huge acquisitions, preferring instead to grow from within. Shelling out $100 billion—and having to integrate an entirely different culture into Apple—would be wholly out of character for the company.

Microsoft

That leaves one company out there that could buy Netflix without much trouble, and is, interestingly, the company that Netflix just entered into a partnership with. Namely, Microsoft. Unlike Amazon, Disney, Google, or Apple, Microsoft currently has no streaming service, so buying Netflix would raise fewer regulatory concerns. There are potentially interesting synergies between Netflix and Microsoft’s Xbox division—in particular, Microsoft could bundle Netflix with its Xbox Ultimate Game Pass to boost subscriptions to both services, just as Disney offers bundles with Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. And on the back end, Netflix currently uses AWS for its backend—somewhere down the line, Microsoft could potentially migrate it to Azure. With a market cap of almost $2 trillion, Microsoft obviously has the resources to make the deal. And it’s not afraid to make acquisitions: It’s in the middle of buying game developer Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. 

So, if you had to bet on anyone deciding to acquire Netflix, Microsoft would be the logical choice. To be clear, this doesn’t mean the deal is going to happen, or even that it should. Microsoft still has to close the Activision deal (including getting approval from regulators) and integrate the game developer. Doing another huge deal immediately after that would be a big ask. And given that the track record of big acquisitions is generally poor for acquirers (who typically overpay), it might well make more sense for Microsoft to build on its new advertising partnership and cut deals with Netflix rather than buy it outright. Microsoft and Netflix don’t need to merge, after all, in order for the two companies to offer a discounted Ultimate Game Pass/Netflix bundle.

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In the end, though, the real driver here may come down to the simple question of how much Microsoft would have to pay to acquire Netflix. If Netflix stems its subscriber losses, its ad-supported tier is a success, and the stock rebounds, it would be inclined to stay on its own. But if things keep going south—or even sideways—and investors stay disillusioned, don’t be shocked if the giant from Redmond eventually swoops in to buy Netflix on the cheap. 

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About the author

James Surowiecki is the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, and has written business columns for The New Yorker and Slate, and written for a wide range of other publications.

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