The streaming video wars amped up another level this past week when Comcast executives unveiled most major details about the soon-to-launch Peacock service. There’s lots to like about Peacock, but after spending time looking at what’s proposed, the most striking thing is how much Peacock looks like a traditional cable offering rather than a cutting-edge digital video streaming service. At a time when most major media companies are ripping up Hollywood’s eternal verities and betting billions in startup costs and foregone syndication revenues, Peacock feels like a throwback to a different era.
It’s no real surprise that, even as Comcast tiptoes into the future, the country’s biggest cable TV provider is doing everything it can to protect the lucrative legacy business still responsible for much of its $216 billion market capitalization. But let me count the ways this very big bird looks fondly on the tried-and-true economic models of cable and broadcast TV:
- It’ll be on cable TV! Some 24 million Comcast and Cox cable subscribers will get Peacock Premium first, and for free, when it launches April 15. Expect other cable providers to join the launch party, too, just like you’d see with a traditional cable channel getting carriage across the country. That said, Comcast already treats Netflix, for instance, as just another channel on its Xfinity platform. You don’t even have to switch inputs to Roku or your connected TV to watch–an important consideration when you’re trying to keep the cord-cutters from leaving. Adding Peacock is another round in, as one executive put it last fall during a panel I moderated, The Battle for Hegemony Over Input One.
- Multiple service tiers! If you’re not a Comcast or Cox cable subscriber, you have to wait three more months to check out Peacock’s feathers. Then you’ll have options, beginning with what device you use to watch. Peacock says it will be available then “on all popular connected mobile and web devices.” You’ll also have to figure out what you’re willing to pay for. Peacock Free is, um, free…but with half the programming and plenty of ads. In that regard, it’s just like broadcast and basic cable TV (and the proliferating ad-supported streamers such as Tubi, Pluto, and the Roku Channel). Or you can pay $4.99 a month to get about double the programming–but also, ads. Or, for $9.99 a month, you can get ad-free Premium,
- Those ads! So, about those ad-supported tiers, which sure sound like the TV-watching experience most cord-cutters want to ditch. Peacock expects to reap “hundreds of millions in initial advertising revenue,” partly thanks to launch partners Eli Lilly, State Farm, Target, and Unilever. NBCUniversal Chairman Steve Burke estimated last year that Peacock ads would generate a whopping $5 per month per subscriber. Multiply that by those 24 million Cox and Comcast subscribers, and it starts to add up to real money. Peacock will have about a third as many ads as NBC typically shows (5 minutes compared to 16), and take advantage of some new kinds of ad units that first showed up on Hulu. Importantly, creating multiple revenue streams is something Comcast and its NBCUniversal unit know a lot about from cable and broadcast. But among all the big new streamers launching these days, so far only mobile newcomer Quibi has committed to ad-supported tiers (Hulu, which NBC helped build over the past decade, has them too.) HBO Max says it may go there eventually, and cynics might suggest that Disney+ programming is redolent with self-promoting advertorial shows (One Day at Disney, The Imagineering Story). But for now, most big streamers are making like ad-free Netflix, even as some investors keep saying it too should start selling commercials too.
- It’s hard to figure out what’s where! This problem is far larger than Comcast, but its vast bank of content formerly syndicated elsewhere exemplifies the issue. Cable programming guides are a nightmare to wade through in a world of 500 channels. Now, that problem is about to get a gazillion times worse. This is likely the ultimate definition of First World Problems, but figuring out what service has what show, when, and for how long, is already one of the streaming world’s biggest annoyances. Shows like The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Battlestar Galactica that started on Comcast-owned networks have since been available for years on Netflix. Now, they’re headed to Peacock, which will double down on this maddening exercise even amid its own offerings. Peacock Free will provide “next-day access to current seasons of freshman broadcast series” and “select episodes of marquee Peacock originals and tent-pole series.” Got that, viewers? While Premium will have lots of everything, Free viewers will get “curated” daily news and sports, and basic-cable-style “channels” built around NBCU stalwarts such as Saturday Night Live. Even more confusing: Peacock signed deals to run Yellowstone from ViacomCBS, and Two and a Half Men and The George Lopez Show from Warner Bros., which both have their own streaming services.
- Endless Dick Wolf! More Olympics! Early Jimmy and Seth! Other NBC shows you know! Lots of shows you’re used to seeing on NBC are now Peacock-bound, in one form or another. Peacock will have six iterations of mega-producer Dick Wolf’s Law and Order and Chicago franchises. That may be almost enough to sate his shows’ hardcore fanbase. Same with still more Olympics coverage beyond the many thousands of hours that NBCU channels already were going to serve up. Subscribers will see this summer’s opening and closing ceremonies from Tokyo when they happen, while they happen, instead of waiting until prime time. They’ll also get three daily highlights shows and a thousand hours of the Tokyo Paralympics. This all kicks in, BTW, just nine days after Peacock goes wide. No pressure there. Also, if narcoleptic talk show fanst just can’t stay up for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or Late Night with Seth Meyers, they can stream those shows three hours earlier on NBC.
- Lester Holt! Dateline! The Today Show! And other live news stuff! The other big streamers will offer little or no live programming, especially around news (though watch what HBO Max does with corporate cousin CNN). Peacock, though, will have content from all the big NBC News shows, along with a new international news network to be created in concert with recent acquisition Sky. Interestingly, the launch announcement said nothing about existing Comcast news networks MSNBC and CNBC. Beyond news, Peacock also promises “compelling” reality shows and live sports, including golf’s Ryder Cup and soccer’s English Premiere League.
- Old shows you love and new shows from people you love! Kevin Hart‘s Laugh Out Loud Network, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Will Forte, and David Schwimmer are creating shows. Peacock also is rebooting favorite franchises such as Saved by the Bell, Battlestar Galactica, and the immortal Punky Brewster. And tons of old Netflix…er, NBC/Syfy/USA/Bravo series are coming too, including Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, Cheers, Downton Abbey, Frasier, and the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot, all previously watch ad nauseam on Netflix.
That Bird Has A Familiar Look
So, there’s lots in Peacock that will look familiar, perhaps even comforting, to millions of viewers. Peacock represents something very different from most of its major streaming competitors: a hybrid throwback that offers a lot of what people liked about the ancien regime (Dick Wolf shows, Olympics, Jimmy Fallon, news, live sports) while holding on to some things most viewers were hoping to ditch (ads! Also, ads. And finding stuff among all the stuff).
At the same time, Comcast hopes to hold on to a couple of important leftovers from its lucrative, lengthy run as king of cable. One of those treasured resources is audiences, who have been cutting the cable cord by the tens of millions (one recent estimate put it at 76 million people). Perhaps Peacock Free, with lots of beloved, no-extra-cost programming, will entice cable customers to stick around, or even pay a bit more to get the whole Premium bird.
And that leads to the other resource Comcast wants to preserve: revenue. Lots of media companies are betting on the uncertain, if highly promising, economics of streaming. They’re commissioning expensive exclusive programming, incurring new operations and customer-relations costs, and giving up hundreds of millions of dollars in syndication revenue. Peacock is no different in that regard. Its executives project the service won’t be profitable until 2024, when it would have between 30 million and 35 million subscribers. (Disney+ is projecting profitability then too, but two to three times as many subscribers.)
But even a money-losing new Peacock might help Comcast’s broader bottom line. A free and deep streaming service semi-exclusive to Comcast may give cord-cutters more reason to put the scissors back in the kitchen drawer. And there’s that whole Battle for Input One Hegemony. Comcast has made a giant bet on controlling that input. Peacock is another soldier in the Comcast fight to retain its legacy businesses as long as possible, and perhaps even recapture a few fugitive former users now outbound on the streaming train. It’s that fight that matters most to Comcast, far more than whether Peacock can “win” the streaming wars any time soon.