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Peacock bets the most fraught Olympics in history can drive streaming subscribers

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have long been seen as Peacock’s tentpole event. Will protests, empty seats, and COVID-19 cases spoil or support signups and viewing?

Peacock bets the most fraught Olympics in history can drive streaming subscribers
[Source photos: gorodenkoff/iStock; Dean Mouhtaropoulos /Staff/Getty Images]

When NBCUniversal launched its entrant into the streaming wars in July 2020, its birth was more of a pop than a bang. After all, the platform was years late to the game, coming on the heels of not only early pioneers like Netflix and Hulu, but also HBO Max, Apple, and Disney Plus. Then there was the name, Peacock: a bit cute and old-timey for a service meant to steer NBCU and its parent company, Comcast, into the future. (NBC first added a peacock into its branding in 1956 to promote the advent of color television.) Most problematic, though, was that the tentpole event intended to generate buzz—and subscribers—to launch Peacock right out of the gate was delayed due to COVID-19.

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Yes, that would be the Tokyo Olympics.

A year later, the Games are back on the schedule, with the Opening Ceremony beginning at 7 a.m. Eastern on Friday, July 23. Peacock, which has amassed 42 million subscribers at this point (Netflix has over 200 million) is poised to take full advantage, with Olympic-themed original programming, commentary from the likes of Snoop Dogg and Kevin Hart, and live streams of popular events, such as gymnastics and track and field. The idea: Better late than never, particularly for the kind of differentiating content that doesn’t exist on competitors Disney Plus and HBO Max, whose primary enticements are their deep libraries of TV shows and movies.

Thus far, Peacock’s original-content strategy has been a slow-drip of accumulation in the form of snagging The Office from its previous home on Netflix; a reboot of Saved by the Bell; acquiring the streaming rights to the WWE; and sharing Modern Family with Hulu.

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The Olympics, then, are by far its biggest pitch for growth. As Peacock chairman Matt Strauss has said of the Olympic shot in the arm: “We’re very optimistic we’re going to bring on a new audience to Peacock and that this will continue to help us grow as we continue to add on more subscribers.”

But in a narrative rife with hitches, there are more—thanks, once again, to COVID-19. In the months leading up to the Games, there have been Japanese protests over the fact that throngs of outsiders are descending on a city that’s officially in a state of emergency due to the pandemic. As a result of this decree, spectators have been banned from the Olympics, meaning there will be no crowd roars to amp up the drama for viewers. Meanwhile, dozens of Olympic athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been forced to drop out of competition, including U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff and U.S. basketball player Bradley Beal.   

Peacock’s bet remains that more than a year into the pandemic, audiences are craving the kind of feel-good, unifying entertainment that the Olympics are all about. As frustrating and scary as these new surges are, they also mean more people than anticipated will be forced (or will choose) to stay indoors and watch TV this summer. The time difference between the United States and Japan also means that it will be difficult to watch all the events live, giving Peacock a chance to shine, seeing as how the platform allows for on-demand replays for cord-cutters who don’t want to stay up until 3 a.m. to watch the men’s 400-meter butterfly. (The Olympics, of course, are not exclusive to Peacock and can be viewed on other NBCU platforms, such as YouTube, Sling TV, and Hulu’s NBC channel.) Peacock executives also have talked about how the quiet stadiums will allow for a new kind of audio drama, seeing as viewers will be able to hear coaches muttering things to their players. A pin-drop atmosphere, after all, can carry its own unique form of tension.  

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[Source photo: Masashi Hara/Getty Images]

The backdrop of the pandemic gives the program an aura of greater consequence. Coming off the challenges and tragedies of the past year, seeing athletes, who have been doggedly training throughout it all, pull off their moves isn’t just exciting, it’s deeply powerful. As NBC Olympics executive producer Molly Solomon has said: “This is going to be the most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime.” 

But is meaning enough to boost Peacock’s numbers and drive new signups?    

If the streaming wars have proven anything, it’s that new platforms rise, at least initially, on the backs of their stars, typically in the form of a TV show (House of Cards for Netflix, The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu, The Mandalorian for Disney Plus) or other exclusive content. This strategy, along with the state of theatrical moviegoing during COVID-19, drove WarnerMedia to put its entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max, allowing subscribers access to blockbusters like Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs. Kong. 

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For the Olympics to serve as Peacock’s star program, the Games themselves—more so than Peacock—will need to produce wowing performances and breakout stars that urge viewers to keep tuning in. American gymnast Simone Biles arrives as the most likely candidate, and NBCU has been building her up with pre-game interviews and other footage to set the stage. But that’s still not a guarantee that Biles will pull off an engaging narrative that goes beyond perfect floor routines. What if she’s ousted early? (Unlikely, but injuries can happen.)

Most likely, surprising wins and comeback stories will emerge from unexpected places. The new surfing category? The Kenyan rugby team? If these stories can be capitalized on and blown out through commentary, replays, and social media content, Peacock will have an edge. With those events serving as pull-ins, the hope is that viewers will stick around for pre-produced content on the service’s channels devoted to “Great Moments” (from past Olympics) and “Tokyo: Meet the Olympians.” 

Peacock has spent the last year preparing for this moment, the extra months giving executives time to prep and create more content. In other words, Peacock is ready. How that will translate into growing subscriptions and catching up to Netflix, et al., will largely depend on what happens on the floor, the court, and the soccer field, as opposed to what’s going on with protests or athletes’ COVID-19 test results.

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For Peacock, as much as for the athletes themselves, it’s all about letting the games begin. 

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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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