Earnings Preview: Will Netflix Stream a Horror Story?

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Last year was a boom-and-bust one for Netflix (NAS: NFLX) , punctuated by a poorly handled price change and the swiftly aborted Qwikster experiment. The company reports fourth-quarter results on Wednesday night. Are we settling in for an epic drama, a horror flick, or another comedy of errors?

Setting the scene
The year sure started out in style. Netflix shares climbed about 50% year to date before losing a bit of steam last week. Coming into this report, the stock has lost about 10% of its value in the last week. With volatility of that magnitude, Netflix is obviously not for the faint of heart.

Analysts have their sights set on earnings of about $0.55 per share on $858 million in sales. That's smack in the middle of management's revenue guidance and slightly above the midpoint of the official earnings projection. But then the earnings guidance covers such a wide range -- $0.36 to $0.70 per share -- that it's hardly guidance at all.

More to the point, CEO Reed Hastings has insisted all along that the flow of subscriber losses should have been stemmed in December, maybe even reversed. The third quarter ended with 21.5 million streaming customers, 14 million people waiting by the mailbox for those red DVD mailers, and a great deal of overlap for a grand total of 24.8 million unique domestic subscribers.

Out with the old; in with the new
The DVD business has quickly become the redheaded stepchild in Netflix's house. CoinStar's (NAS: CSTR) Redbox service now rents out more DVD and Blu-ray discs than Netflix does. Overall, it's already a market on its last legs, with rental volumes sinking 11% year over year. Redbox is the only grower in that sector, while new DISH Network (NAS: DISH) subsidiary Blockbuster and Netflix are shrinking fast.

The upper end of streaming subscriber guidance is basically flat from last quarter, so if December was supposed to be good, then October must have hurt like pulling teeth without Novocain. Recent press releases have simply stated than Netflix has "more than 20 million streaming members" on a global level. On the other hand, former Chief Marketing Officer Leslie Kilgore left the building with kudos for "our recent return to solid growth." The subscribers breakdown will be the most interesting part of this report, my friends.

I thought that Netflix was a worthy investment at $200 a share, and I see last summer's mishaps as a speed bump, not a thesis-sinking iceberg. At these prices, the stock looks like a no-brainer to me. I have real skin in this game, and Netflix is a core pillar in my all-star CAPS portfolio. Add Netflix to your Foolish watchlist and pop a bag of popcorn. This report will tell a tale to remember, and I'm looking for a family friendly story this time.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundowns shares of Netflix but holds no other position in any of the companies mentioned.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. We have adisclosure policy.

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