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Netflix blew past Wall Street expectations this week and added 7.4 million new subscribers between January and March — giving it a total of 125 million paying subscribers worldwide. Its popularity is leaving rivals Amazon and Hulu in the dust as it continues to add new content.
But can the service that made binge watching popular keep it up as a big rival gears up to take it on?
When House of Cards staring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright premiered in 2013, it was groundbreaking TV. Big producers like HBO, Showtime and AMC, had turned it down. But as a subscription streaming service, Netflix had been able to gather a lot of data about its users and it saw a perfect fit.
Viewers loved it and it became the first original online-only series to receive major Emmy nominations.
"Right now, Netflix is the only game in town," says Daniel Ives, an analyst at GBH Insights. Ives says on average viewers spend 5 hours a week on Hulu and Amazon and 10 hours a week on Netflix. "They just continue to have just massive fuel in their tank," he says. "They have just a competitive moat that is widening."
Plus, Netflix has expanded to 190 countries. That has allowed Netflix to create global hits such as Dark, a sci-fi horror drama — it's a bit like a German version of Stranger Things — and the Spanish language thriller La Casa de Papel.
This year, Netflix also won an Academy Award for the documentary Icarus about doping among cyclists. Sid Ganis, a film producer and the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says Netflix has established itself as a place for high-quality content.
"If you go out there and pitch Netflix, you better have something good or very often they pass," he says. "I have my own personal experience with Netflix passing."
While a lot of people people see a big wide horizon for Netflix, Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, has been a skeptic. He points out that even one of its biggest hits, House of Cards, is licensed and so far Netflix has produced very little of its own original content.
"We think you've never heard of any of them, except Stranger Things," Pachter says. "You've never heard of Flaked, and if you've heard of The Ranch, it's only because Danny Masterson has been accused of rape."
Pachter sees a cloud over Netflix. Disney is going to pull its content from the site and create its own streaming service, and Disney is buying 21st Century Fox's Film and TV assets.
"Disney single-handedly can stick a dagger in Netflix's heart next year," Pachter says. "Let's see what they do."
While Netflix has been slowly building respect in Hollywood and around the world, Disney and Fox are already well-connected in the entertainment business — and they each have long track records of creating globally popular TV series and films. Together they could be formidable.
That's a lot of history for Netflix to overcome, but the streaming pioneer has made a success of breaking the old rules.
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