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Peacock just blew its best chance at a splashy streaming-wars debut

The company and analysts counsel patience, but consumers would’ve fallen in love with the newest streaming service if it’d given them a blockbuster movie.

Peacock just blew its best chance at a splashy streaming-wars debut
[Photo: Trevor McKinnon/Unsplash; Sven Scheuermeier/Unsplash]
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This past Wednesday, NBCUniversal officially entered the streaming wars with the launch of Peacock, its TV-heavy streaming service, which will allow users to binge on classic shows from the NBC stable, such as 30 Rock and Frasier, as well as news, sports, and reality TV shows such as The Real Housewives and Top Chef.

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One of Peacock’s selling points is that it’s a free, ad-supported service, at a time when people are feeling the financial crunch of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subscription fatigue amid the proliferation of services has become all too real. (That said, Peacock also has $5 and $10 subscription tiers with, respectively, fewer and no ads.)

Peacock gamely made its case for why it was worth a shot (including in Fast Company), delivering its message that audiences desire more of a channel-surfing experience in the post-channel age. There were ads aplenty featuring a blue-and-green feathered peafowl propped on a sofa with popcorn, and it sent select members of the media a bulging gift basket filled with a projector, a Cheers mug, NBC-themed coasters, a puzzle, caramel corn, and more.

But even with such a thorough media campaign, it was hard not to feel that Peacock arrived not with a thunderbolt from the heavens, but with a slight rumble from above.

What was missing was a big, splashy, original title to generate buzz and awareness. Ever since Netflix signaled its ambitions to be a major player in the future of entertainment by plunking down $100 million to secure House of Cards, a can’t-see-anywhere-else title has become the best way to get people excited about a streaming service. Consider how Disney Plus launched last fall with exclusive access to its Star Wars spin-off series The Mandalorian. Even Apple adopted this playbook when it timed the debut of Apple TV Plus with The Morning Show, an original series starring two of America’s most beloved stars, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.

Comcast NBCUniversal, Peacock’s parent company, arguably had its choice of not one but two blockbusters with which to launch Peacock—either of which had the potential to draw tens of millions of subscribers right away—yet it didn’t deploy them. This is what might have been and why it didn’t happen.

A shaky hand

Peacock’s original lineup, in contrast, is remarkably low-key. In fact, when it comes to hype-generating originals, the company seems to be stubbornly snubbing its nose at the concept. There’s Brave New World, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s sci-fi classic with Alden Ehrenreich and Demi Moore, and the film Psych 2: Lassie Come Home. There are also two British scripted series—Intelligence, starring Friends’ David Schwimmer, and The Capture, a conspiracy thriller—but both have already aired in the U.K.

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In Peacock’s defense, its slate of originals was affected by the halt in production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coming down the pike is more titillating fare, such as a reboot of Battlestar Galactica from Sam Esmail, the exec producer of Mr. Robot and Homecoming, and Dr. Death, based on the popular podcast. (Remakes of Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell are also in the works.)

“They’re stocking Peacock with content for passion fans, who will feel like they need this service,” says one streaming analyst. “But I do feel like for streamers, the basic rules of entertainment still apply: Hits matter. And they’re not planning for hits, or at least new hits. Just the greatest hits. 30 Rock, The Office—here you go.”

The rule breakers at Universal

Indeed, it’s curious how cautiously Peacock has played its launch, especially considering that on the film side, NBCUniversal is by far the most progressive and forward-thinking Hollywood studio at the moment when it comes to distribution.

Rather than wait for movie theaters to bounce back into action once it’s truly safe to return to them, Universal did not delay Trolls: World Tour, the sequel to one of its successful animated franchises, choosing instead to release it on video on demand in mid-March just as stay-at-home orders were spreading across the country.

The bold decision arguably paid off, as Universal has claimed that it made $100 million.

Universal then did the same with the Judd Apatow dramedy The King of Staten Island, giving audiences locked at home something to do on a Saturday night in June.

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Both of these moves not only set Universal apart from its rivals, who mostly opted to delay (and delay) releases, but it established the company as the most forward-thinking and daring movie studio in terms of bucking the long-established order of when and how to release movies to consumers. By bypassing the theaters, which infuriated the major chains, it broke what is known as the traditional release window, the time between when a movie opens in theaters and when people can buy it to watch at home.

The “what if…?” hanging over the Peacock release

Consider if NBCUniversal had been as bold with Peacock, taking a movie such as Minions: The Rise of Gru, which was supposed to be released in theaters this summer but was pushed back to 2021 due to the pandemic, and decided to release it instead behind the paywall on Peacock as a bonus for subscribers. The same case could make for F9, the latest in the long-running Fast and Furious franchise, another film with a massive fan base which was supposed to come out this summer.

Let’s face it, both those titles make The Mandalorian and even Hamilton (to say nothing of The Morning Show) feel like B-list fare. The kind of pent-up demand for either of those movies that could be unleashed in the form of new Peacock subscribers and brand awareness would be gold for a fledgling streaming service.

Naturally, this kind of blue-skying sends Hollywood movie executives—and theater owners—reeling. Movie folks point out that both those titles are global franchises that will undoubtedly rack up not millions, but billions at the box office and beyond, and which need to make that kind of money to recoup their high production and marketing costs. This explains why studios are balking when it comes to using streaming platforms as launchpads for their biggest tentpoles (see the date-hopping that’s going on with Mulan and Tenet). Not to mention that there are presumably contract stipulations that prevent someone such as Vin Diesel from having to forgo the kind of revenue he earns with every ticket sold that’s baked into a theatrical release. There are also piracy issues to take into consideration and complicated window deals.

But if NBCUniversal is serious about streaming and is genuinely placing its future in streaming—as it and all of its competitors all vociferously pledge they are—isn’t a financial loss (even a really big one) on one movie ultimately a rounding-error sacrifice for the sake of much greater and more long-term corporate value?

We’re living through a global pandemic with no end in sight. As Universal already proved, what better time to toss aside conventional wisdom and stop adhering to the traditional rule book?

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At the very least, NBCUniversal could have bundled together some already-shot films on the tier of King of Staten Island and used that to drum up noise that it very much needs as a late arrival to a very crowded field of players. According to a Variety/YouGov survey, in mid-June Peacock’s awareness was around 27%. That put it slightly higher than Quibi (25%), Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-form video play, but nowhere near that of Netflix, which clocks in at 93%.

A single title to rally everyone around in a virtual water-cooler moment would have also helped narrow the message of what Peacock actually is (beyond “something for everyone”), as well as help consumers skim over some of the service’s shortcomings, such as that it’s not yet available on all devices (no Roku or Amazon Fire TV) and that arguably its most popular TV title, The Office, isn’t arriving until January. Parks and Rec is also a few months away from being on the service.

But Peacock executives say their strategy is variety, not swinging for the fences with one property. “Our originals are emblematic of what we’re trying to achieve with the service, which is that we want a wide breadth of content,” says Bill McGoldrick, president of original content for NBCUniversal Entertainment Networks and Direct-to-Consumer. “So we have big-ticket IP like Battlestar Galactica or Saved by the Bell all the way to a fun show like Punky Brewster or some reality shows.

“When we’re looking at originals, we’re not looking at placing all of our bets on one original. It’s really about the variety that we have to offer the consumer.”

Media blogger and investor Mike Raab says Peacock’s strategy will pay off long-term, even if it doesn’t blast out of the gate with huge subscriber numbers driven by a big-name show or movie. “I think Peacock is leaning into its strengths. They’re really building the base to lure viewers in at a low price point, and then hoping they stick around because they have all this content that they love to continually consume. That’s the company’s strength. They have the content that keeps viewers and subscribers watching months after the big-budget show is over.”

He adds that NBCUniversal has “never been great about spending $15 million an episode for a big, serialized drama” as competitors such as Netflix routinely do and that after Apple launched to much hype with The Morning Show, there “wasn’t much reason for people to stick around.”

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LightShed Partners media analyst Rich Greenfield adds that Peacock’s success is not simply about subscriber growth, but about how it serves to retain more Comcast and Cox cable subscribers and drives value back to Comcast, just as Apple TV’s success is not simply about how fast it grows, but how it keeps consumers tied to the Apple ecosystem.

“These are no longer discrete calculations,” he says. “The indirect benefits are very significant, and I feel like the press and the analyst community don’t spend enough time weighing them. People who say Peacock is a joke—these are 5 to 10-year strategic moves by these companies. Judging their success or failure in what happens during the first few months during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is absurd.”

Perhaps.

Theoretically, there will be another chance to reintroduce a service to consumers, the way that Apple TV Plus earned a lot of buzz (and likely viewers) when it acquired Tom Hanks’s crowd-pleaser Greyhound, or how Disney Plus rekindled enthusiasm and likely drove a new batch of subscribers when it decided to drop the filmed version of Hamilton over July 4th weekend. Both movies were set for theaters, until they weren’t.

So maybe it wouldn’t have fit the strategic plan, but it’s too bad we’re not beating the heat this weekend piling up on our couches to catch up with the antics of the Minions.

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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