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Netflix's coronavirus boom seems obvious. Is it a fantasy?

Everyone agrees streaming will surge with people shut in during the coronavirus pandemic. Not everyone agrees it's great for Netflix.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

A glance at Netflix's popularity ranking shows one way the world's biggest subscription streaming service is colliding with new coronavirus: The ninth most popular thing people are streaming in the US right now is Outbreak, the 25-year-old thriller about scientists scrambling to avert a global disaster when a killer virus emerges in California.

The coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease known as COVID-19, has gripped parts of the world for months. This week, it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Markets tanked, sports leagues canceled tournaments and seasons, big-budget movie releases are delayed, TV productions are on hold, and people everywhere are preparing for the possibility they'll be stuck in their homes much more than usual.

All that has led many to at least one shared conclusion: The world is going to be streaming a hella lot of Netflix. You might think that means everyone would be flocking to sign up, and that Netflix's business would be booming. But in the US, homebound viewers have more streaming options than ever with new entrants like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, not to mention Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. And chances are you already have a Netflix account. 

But could coronavirus actually hurt Netflix's business? One analyst says the economic hardship created by the pandemic could have some consumers reconsidering the service. 

That runs contrary to the view of most analysts who track Netflix, who agree the coronavirus will keep people at home to stream more. Most of them grade Netflix's business as either unlikely to be hurt by the pandemic, or possibly to be helped by it. Analysts at RBC, Canaccord Genuity, MoffettNathanson, LightShed and BMO all say the coronavirus outbreak is either low risk to Netflix or potentially even helpful. 

Watch this: Pandemic: Here's what's changed about the coronavirus

But a streaming surge might not be a boon for Netflix, according to Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham. Netflix memberships are basically all-you-can-stream buffets for that one monthly price. Just because people are streaming more hours on Netflix during social distancing or isolation doesn't mean Netflix's business gets a boost, Martin said in a note this week. 

But what about new subscribers who join when they're stuck inside? The problem is, at least in the US, there aren't a whole lot of streaming households left that don't subscribe to Netflix, she argued. Netflix's 61 million US subscribers mean it's already in the majority of streaming households: Martin estimates that only one out of four remain that haven't yet jumped on the Netflix bandwagon. 

Even internationally, where Netflix has much more room to grow, an economic pall is falling over the world because the virus is stifling travel and spending. Netflix makes the most money per member outside the US in Europe, for example. But Friday, the WHO's director-general said Europe is now the center of the pandemic. 

Netflix, Martin says, is a luxury purchase in distressed times, and she said people will start giving up their Netflix subscriptions, slowing Netflix's growth internationally.  

Others, to put it lightly, disagree

Regardless of the coronavirus' effect on new Netfix signups, the fact that more people will be entertaining themselves at home could prod the existing Netflix members to trade up to a more expensive subscription to unlock additional simultaneous streams, Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at LightShed, said in a note this week.

Netflix declined to comment on the coronavirus' effect. 

One silver lining, even in the midst of all the pandemic fears: Netflix is huge enough that you can count on a steady stream of new content landing all the time. 

The coronavirus has spurred streaming services, including Netflix, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, to postpone productions. High-profile originals like Marvel's The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for Disney Plus and The Morning Show for Apple are on hold, and Netflix has shut down all film and TV production in the US and Canada. 

But Netflix's content-production machine is global and bigger than that of any other streaming service. Netflix had four new titles land Friday, and within the coming week another nine are set to arrive, including uplifting tales like this one about a nightmarish dystopian prison.

What could be better to tide us over while we avert apocalypse?