Later today, Netflix will announce its quarterly results, and top executives will take questions from analysts and investors. And you can watch it all, live online! Last week, Yahoo did much the same thing. Is this the future of earnings calls? If so, why?
The Wall Street Journal detects “a whiff of show biz” — even as it quotes observers calling the tactic pretentious, or a “gimmick.” For Netflix the decision seems to be another instance of cultivating a reputation for techie transparency and openness with investors. (It has previously released financial data via Facebook, for instance.) The company has even invited the Internet in general to tweet or email questions to moderators Rich Greenfield of BTIG Research and Julia Boorstin of CNBC.
Still, unless something goes terribly awry — more on that tantalizing possibility in a moment — the Netflix earnings event is more likely to be another example of how technology is redrawing the boundaries of corporate and chief-executive image management.
If you’ve ever actually listened to a corporate earnings call, you know that there is no intrinsically logical reason anyone would want to watch a corporate earnings call. The ritual consists of long recitations of financial data, canned spin from a CEO, and bland non-responses to Wall Street analyst questions. Investors and reporters listen in because they have to, not because it’s some sort of thrilling privilege or inside scoop. And it certainly doesn’t seem like a formula that demands a visual component.
But consider this in the context of other shifts — like the way new tech product announcements have become popular online events drawing bigger audiences than cable news. Or the likes of Mark Zuckerberg channeling his inner George Zimmer to star in a Facebook commercial. Or Netflix CEO Reed Hastings himself appearing in a YouTube video explaining a scheme to launch a separate DVD-focused brand called Qwikster.
That, of course, was a catastrophe of image-management: Not only was Qwikster snuffed out almost immediately, the video actually inspired a crushing Saturday Night Live parody.
Which brings us to the only plausible reason I can imagine looking forward to watching an earnings call: Maybe something embarrassing and horrible will go down! It does happen. One famous example: Jeffrey Skilling of Enron responding to a hedge fund manager’s earnings-call skepticism by calling him an “asshole.” More recently, an executive with natural gas company Encana used the same word, modified with an even stronger expletive, after an apparently irritating analyst query. [Ed. note: "fucking asshole"]
So maybe offering video adds more possibilities for a train-wreck gaffe: Rolled eyes, a smirk, a wince, possibly even nose-picking. I’d say that’s a long shot: Unless Netflix is truly reckless, executives who appear will have been extensively coached about on-camera behavior (whether that’s a great use of their time from a shareholder perspective is an open question).
But I’d also say the real goal here isn’t for Netflix to draw a huge audience, or produce a uniquely transparent event. It’s to publicize the idea of such an event, and of Netflix as the sort of forward-thinking company that uses technology to be more transparent and open.
Still, you never know — the Qwikster video was pretty goofy. I have to admit to having enough curiosity that I might watch for a few minutes. But I doubt I’ll sit through the whole thing. I’d rather count on the Internet to tell me if anything good happened: If there’s a gaffe, I’ll wait for the GIF.