NBCUniversal officially enters the streaming wars with Peacock launch

Technology

With much of the United States forced to stay inside and looking for any kind of entertainment to make the days go by faster, NBCUniversal couldn’t have picked a better time to launch its new Peacock streaming service — assuming you’re a Comcast customer, that is.

Peacock will be available for Comcast’s Xfinity X1 and Flex customers across the country beginning tomorrow. NBCUniversal executives expect it to be available to all eligible customers by the end of April. It doesn’t cost anything extra on top of your regular bill. This is an early preview of the ad-supported subscription service. Comcast still plans to roll out Peacock to non-Comcast subscribers on July 15th. Originally, Comcast and NBCUniversal were going to use the 2020 Summer Olympics as a tie-in for a bigger Peacock launch, but that is no longer the case following the IOC’s decision to delay the Olympics to 2021 because of the pandemic.

“That is something we’re evaluating,” Matt Strauss, chairman of Peacock and NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, told reporters, adding that this is a long-term strategy for Comcast and NBCUniversal. “We certainly see the value, but with the team working from home, for now July is still the target date.”

Strauss added that when the company shared its “strategy for Peacock a few months, ago none of us could have imagined the unprecedented and historic turn of events.” Like others in the industry, the coronavirus has impacted production on Peacock originals. Strauss acknowledged this will “materially limit our material slate at launch and into 2020.” Although it’s a negative for the company at launch, he’s confident it will only create a bigger 2021 for the service.

“We always planned to launch in two phases, first on Comcast to watch and learn, then nationally,” Strauss said. “We are able to maintain our timeline.”

(Disclaimer: NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which is an investor in Vox Media, which owns The Verge.)

Going without the Olympics as a major launch event isn’t ideal, but it’s still a beneficial time to roll out a streaming service. Comcast is reporting a 50 percent increase in on-demand viewing year-over-year, and entertainment hours on Xfinity and Flex platforms are up 24 percent compared to last year, according to Dana Strong, president of Xfinity Consumer Services at Comcast. People are watching more television than ever before, and Peacock is entering a market where those same viewers are starved for new content to watch.

“Now more than ever there is a need for a free quality streaming service that can provide viewers with both the information they need to stay informed and entertainment they seek to escape the moment,” Strauss said in a press release.

Getting people to sign up for a streaming service when they’re stuck at home isn’t difficult; retaining those customers is where the bigger challenge lies. Peacock will be available in three tiers when it launches for all customers in July: a free option (Peacock Free) that comes with limited programming; an ad-supported complete version free to existing Comcast customers and a $5-a-month version for everyone else; and a $10-a-month ad-free subscription option (Peacock Premium) that is open to anyone. Charging $6 monthly for an ad-supported streaming service is about on par with Hulu, and is more cost-effective than many of NBCUniversal’s competitors. Even the ad-free $10 / month fee is cheaper than Netflix’s most popular plan ($12.99) and less than HBO Max ($14.99).

“Peacock has its strategy with their modular pricing could help them,” Raj Venkatesan, professor of business at the University of Virginia, said. “Streaming is only going to grow. People will need some kind of entertainment, especially with live entertainment going away. The question of budget is definitely there — if people lose jobs, they may only have one service or two. There is an opportunity, especially for cheaper services like Peacock, but there is also the competition.”

Where Peacock can win out over competitors is its library of content. NBCUniversal owns one of the biggest libraries of TV shows and movies, alongside ViacomCBS and WarnerMedia. Peacock Premium is launching with more than 15,000 hours of current TV shows, older titles, and a number of movies. These include Law & Order: SVU, 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, Jurassic Park, E.T., and Ray.

“There are certain milestones where we have opportunities to have content back on Peacock either non-exclusively or exclusively,” Strauss told reporters, acknowledging that NBCUniversal still has a deal with Hulu over many of its series, which is owned by Disney. “Our ambition with Peacock is something that is going to continue to grow. In many ways, it’s where the future for our business is, so you’ll hear us continue to discuss additional content that we’ll want to make available on Peacock over time.”

Peacock will also launch with live news programming, reality series, and late-night shows from Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers. Peacock Premium subscribers will also get access to Fallon and Meyers’ shows prior to the live telecasts, which air at 11:30PM ET and 12:30AM ET, respectively. NBCUniversal is relying on its key strengths to bring people in and keep them subscribed even when things return to normal: sports options that could end up on Peacock (once sports are back), a massive catalog of entertainment, and impressive licensing deals that allow it to keep up with other competition.

Just because Comcast is getting into the streaming game doesn’t mean the company is pivoting away from cable. Peacock is its own service just as much as it is an add-on for Xfinity and Flex customers that Comcast wants to serve. At the end of the day, Comcast is still a cable provider that profits from people signing up for cable. It’s also a company that realizes people are moving toward streaming, and that’s where it also needs to be.

“It’s really hard to predict which will come out on top right now,” Venkatesan said. “If you can acquire subscribers now and retain them, you’re ahead of competitors. That’s the game with all of these streaming services. Peacock has a good shot.”