Netflix's enormous spending on original content has led the streaming video platform to accrue $20.54 billion "in long term debt and obligations," according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
The company is expected to spend $6 billion on original content this year, with an undetermined budget spent on licensing fees for programs from TV studios. Its net cash outflow will increase this year to $2.5 billion, up from $1.7 billion, and the company expects “to be free-cash-flow negative for many years."
Investors seem content with Netflix's financial game plan, and are hopeful that debt financing will "create growth" in the short term. The company has continued to build its base of subscribers paying for the service (104 million, up 25% from 2016) and gather critical acclaim for original shows – its programming won 91 Emmy nominations last year spread over 50 shows.
However, some industry experts are warning of a "Netflix bubble" if the platform's original content fails to keep attracting users. “I think they're going to need some luck in not drowning in debt in the ultimate slowdown of growth,” said media consultant Mike Vorhaus, while analyst Michael Pachter warned of "a looming write-down."
Netflix has increasingly relied on debt for funds. Its long-term debt is $4.84 billion, double what it was last year. And the company's streaming content obligations, approximately $15.7 billion, reportedly isn't reflected in the company's balance sheets. From the Times: "In its most recent quarterly filing, the company said it has $8.2 billion in off-balance-sheet debt. The practice is a common accounting technique but it is also a way for companies to paint a rosier financial picture than may be the case."
The spending on original content is likely to increase in the hopes of attracting more subscribers, and as TV networks rise the costs of licensing fees for shows to stream on Netflix. The company hopes to eventually build a library that's 50% Netflix originals, but experts warn that this would require a lot of time – possibly decades – as well as money.
Netflix declined to comment when reached by the Times. The FADER has reached out for comment.
Update, 8/1/2017, 8:21 a.m: Netflix has responded to Los Angeles Times and disputes its claims. Read the company's statement below.
The L.A. Times story inaccurately calculates our debt, counting our streaming obligations (i.e. our content contracts with studios) of $15.7b as debt, which it isn't. The correct number: we have total gross debt of $4.8b vs. our equity market value of about $75b. They have since corrected the story.
More context, the $15.7b is future content expenses that roll through the income statement over time. Every broadcaster, cable network and streamer that has licensing agreements uses the same structure. As a point of reference, Disney/ESPN has $49b in similar commitments for sports contracts.
The FADER's post has been edited to reflect these clarifications.