Disney won't hurt Netflix by stealing subscribers — but it will make it harder to raise prices

Disney announced Wednesday it will bundle Disney+, ad-supported Hulu and ESPN+ together for $12.99 per month — the same as Netflix charges for its standard plan.
Image: Disney
Cathleen Taff speaks during Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures special presentation as part of CinemaCon at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on April 3, 2019, in Las Vegas.Gabe Ginsberg / WireImage

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/ Source: CNBC.com
By Alex Sherman, CNBC

Disney probably isn’t going to kill Netflix by stealing subscribers. But it may give it a chronic illness.

Disney announced Wednesday it will bundle Disney+, ad-supported Hulu and ESPN+ together for $12.99 per month. That’s the same price as Netflix charges for its standard plan.

While tempting to ask “will consumers rather have Disney’s bundle or Netflix?,” that probably isn’t the right question.

Video streaming isn’t going to be a zero-sum game. Consumers will pick and choose among offerings and may end up with four or five services on average. Netflix has more than 151 million global subscribers. The idea that Disney or any other service will “kill” Netflix by causing millions of people to switch services is unreasonable.

But Disney’s pricing could undercut a core part of the Netflix narrative — that Netflix can turn customer growth into earnings growth by raising prices once subscribers plateau.

When a customer’s price-to-value consumption decision is based on Netflix vs. traditional pay-TV, increasing Netflix’s price by $1 or $2 per month seems insignificant. Netflix costs about one-eighth as much as a traditional pay-TV subscription, which runs about $100 per month.

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But with Disney, Netflix will now face a direct streaming competitor at a competitive price. That could make price increases less palatable to consumers.

What happened the last time Netflix raised prices

Netflix did raise prices last quarter -- perhaps to get out in front of services like Disney+, AT&T’s HBO Max (which will likely be between $15 and $18 per month) and NBC Universal’s streaming service, which doesn’t have a price yet for cord cutters and will be free for cable subscribers. Disney+ launches in November. AT&T and NBC will debut their services next year.

Netflix felt the effects of the price increase even without the competition, missing on its second-quarter subscriber forecast and seeing shares fall 10% last month.

“We don’t think their [price increases are] too hard to do, but perhaps the magnitude that we saw in this quarter won’t be as large as we move forward,” said Lee Horowitz, co-head of Internet equity research at Evercore ISI. “And perhaps the time between the next price hike might be a little bit longer.”

On the plus side for Netflix, Disney’s new bundle may not be as appealing to a mass audience as it first appears.

Disney+ was already available for $6.99 a month and Hulu just $5.99 a month. The gain, then, is a free ESPN+ subscription.

But there are less than 3 million ESPN+ subscribers today, suggesting the product has a relatively narrow audience. Disney has purposely kept its most valuable properties — such as Monday Night Football — off ESPN+ to maintain the value of the linear cable station, which commands about $10 per month per pay-TV subscriber. There are still about 88 million people paying for TV, so ESPN’s greatest value to Disney remains in the old-fashioned TV market.

Still, as more content, such as “Friends” and “The Office,” rolls off Netflix, its value proposition compared to other streaming services could drop. The result may not lead customers to cancel, but Netflix needs the flexibility to raise prices to maintain its higher valuation (relative to earnings) than other media companies.

And if Netflix’s valuation suffers, that’s the real Netflix killer.