By Micah Maidenberg and Joe Flint 

Netflix Inc. ended last year with more than 200 million subscribers, a milestone powered by consumers left homebound by the coronavirus pandemic and rising demand in international markets where the streaming giant has a head start over many rivals.

Netflix on Tuesday said it added more than 8.5 million subscribers on a net basis in the fourth quarter, a gain that surpassed its forecast for the period. Overall, Netflix signed up what it said was a record 37 million subscribers in 2020 and had a total of 203.7 million users when the year finished up.

The company's subscriber count has roughly doubled since the third quarter of 2017, when it first exceeded 100 million paying customers.

The pandemic has charged Netflix's growth as consumer cut back on a range of leisure activities -- from dining out and vacations to visiting theaters and concert venues -- to comply with lockdown orders and limit the risk of infection. With many people spending more time at home, streaming demand jumped, bolstering Netflix as well as its competitors.

The Los Gatos, Calif., company said it generated $6.64 billion in fourth-quarter revenue, up from $5.45 billion for the year earlier and exceeding analysts' forecasts. But profit decreased to $542 million, or $1.19 a share, from $587 million, or $1.30 a share, the year earlier. Analysts predicted $1.36 a share for the latest period, according to FactSet.

Netflix shares rose 11.3% in after-hours trading Tuesday. The stock is up more than 48% in the last 12 months.

The streaming giant's strong performers in the quarter included the racy historical drama "Bridgerton," the miniseries "The Queen's Gambit," a new season of "The Crown" and the George Clooney movie "Midnight Sky."

While Covid-19 continues to restrict movie and television productions, Netflix said it currently has more than 500 titles in postproduction or ready to launch. Last week, the company unveiled a movie slate that will see a new release on its platform every week of 2021.

The bulk of the company's growth in 2020 occurred in the first two quarters, as Covid-19 and efforts to stop its spread transformed daily life in countries around the world. Subscriber gains fell, meanwhile, year over year in the latest period, a decline the company had said it expected.

Netflix also said it believes it no longer needs to raise debt going forward for day-to-day operations. The company currently anticipates 2021 cash flow at break-even, an upgrade from its earlier projection, which was minus $1 billion to break-even.

The company said it intends to maintain $10 billion to $15 billion in gross debt. Netflix is also considering a stock buyback program to return cash to shareholders. The company previously repurchased shares from 2007 to 2011, it said in a shareholder letter.

Netflix sent employees confetti and a bottle of Champagne to celebrate surpassing the 200 million subscriber mark.

In October, Netflix raised the monthly price of its standard streaming service, its most popular option, by $1 to $13.99. It still has a cheaper, basic offering as well as a premium one now priced at $17.99 a month.

Netflix isn't the only streaming service benefiting from the pandemic. Walt Disney Co.'s Disney+ is already near 90 million subscribers since its launch in November 2019. The company recently projected reaching 260 million subscribers world-wide by 2024.

Like Netflix, Disney+ also raised its monthly fee by $1 to $7.99 effective this March.

WarnerMedia's new HBO Max streaming platform, which launched last May, hasn't grown as fast as its rivals. However, the company recently unveiled plans to release the entire slate of Warner Bros. theatrical movies on HBO Max simultaneously in hopes of boosting subscribers. WarnerMedia is a unit of AT&T Inc.

Comcast Corp.'s streaming platform Peacock, which offers variously priced plans including a free option, has 26 million sign-ups.

The newest streaming entrants include Discovery+ from Discovery Communications Inc., which launched earlier this month, and Paramount+ from ViacomCBS Inc., which is scheduled to debut in March in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

Netflix cited competition as one reason "why we have been moving so quickly to grow and further strengthen our original content library across a wide range of genres and nations," according to its shareholder letter. "Our strategy is simple: if we can continue to improve Netflix every day to better delight our members, we can be their first choice for streaming entertainment."

The company reported stronger subscriber growth in international markets in the fourth quarter than domestically, continuing a recent trend. It added 860,000 subscriptions in the U.S. and Canada in the period but gained two million subscribers in Asia, more than 1.2 million in Latin America and 4.5 million in the region covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The company has been pushing to tap new markets abroad, including in sub-Saharan Africa, where some industry forecasters have projected content streaming to expand rapidly in coming years.

Netflix also said Tuesday it expects to add another six million users in the current quarter, less than half of what it added for the same period a year ago, which saw a huge increase during pandemic lockdowns.

Write to Micah Maidenberg at micah.maidenberg@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 19, 2021 17:08 ET (22:08 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.