Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says subscriber numbers aren’t the right metric to track competition

Netflix has built itself into a $125 billion company by accumulating global subscribers — a number that hit 164 million when the company announced third-quarter results last month.

But CEO Reed Hastings said Wednesday that subscriber counts aren’t the right metric to track who’s winning the streaming wars — what’s really important is how viewers spend their time.

“Time will be the real competition,” Hastings said at the New York Times DealBook Conference in New York City. “You’ll hear some subscriber numbers but you can just bundle things so that’s not going to be that relevant. So the real measurement will be time — how do consumers vote with their evenings? What mix of all the services do they end up watching?”

The timing of the statement is convenient, as Netflix’s subscriber growth will surely begin to slow down due to the law of large numbers and fiercer competition. But his comments echoed past statements from Hastings and other Netflix execs, who have said that the company competes for user attention not only against TV shows and other streaming services, but also against video games, YouTube — and even sleep.

But Hastings is right to point out that many of the major U.S. streaming services have already found distribution partnerships that will juice subscriber numbers in year one. Many Verizon customers will get one year free of Disney+. AT&T plans on giving HBO Max to its premium video, mobile and broadband customers for no additional charge. Apple is offering Apple+ for free for one year to anyone who buys a new Apple device. Netflix itself has a deal with T-Mobile that gives mobile customers unlimited free Netflix.

Hastings suspects Nielsen and other ratings firms will start to produce data on how much time consumers are spending on new streaming services by the first quarter of 2020. Disney is launching Disney+, its $6.99 per month streaming product on November 12. AT&T will debut HBO Max, its $14.99 streaming product, in May. NBC’s Peacock, which will likely be free and ad-supported, is also coming in the first half of next year.