It’s been a rocky couple of weeks for Peacock. NBC positioned its streaming service as the place to go if you wanted to stream the Olympics without a cable subscription — something that should have been an easy win for the upstart platform. Instead, Peacock’s coverage was wonky and confusing, and the service hasn’t given viewers much of a reason to stick around after the Games. With its biggest draw behind it and little in the way of internet-breaking titles headed to the platform anytime soon, it’s unclear what comes next for NBCUniversal’s biggest streaming bet.
Peacock had 54 million sign-ups and 20 million-plus active accounts as of the end of July, just over a year after launch, parent company Comcast said during its second-quarter earnings call. (A spokesperson declined to specify how many of those active accounts are paid.) That’s really tiny — Netflix has surpassed 200 million subscriptions, by comparison — but it’s a big jump from 42 million sign-ups just a quarter ago, about a third of which the company said were active accounts. The company attributed its growth to the addition of three content exclusives on the platform: Peacock’s “most successful original to date,” Dr. Death; the day and date release of The Boss Baby: Family Business; and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which ended Sunday.
But even Comcast knows that growth will be tough to keep up. “We are unlikely to replicate such tremendous performance,” Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, said during the call. (Disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media, parent company of The Verge.)
Dr. Death was well-received, and I myself paid up for a premium subscription to finish the series, which stars Christian Slater, Alec Baldwin, and Joshua Jackson in the compelling leading role of Christopher Duntsch. But a closer look at Peacock’s content pipeline shows the service isn’t ready to be a Disney Plus or a Netflix, primarily because Peacock doesn’t appear to be willing to funnel unfathomable streams of cash into developing high-caliber originals that match the production value of series like Stranger Things or The Mandalorian.
Peacock very much acts like a broadcast network offering users more of the content they might expect to watch on NBC. Richard Broughton, a research director at Ampere Analysis, said that strategy may work for attracting subscribers to the service’s free and ad-supported tier but not necessarily for its premium ones.
“Peacock’s content offering and its original strategy look like a broadcast network,” Broughton told The Verge. “They’ve got a lot of reality shows, they’ve got unscripted and comedy shows. They have relatively few high-end dramas, which have typically been the things that have set groups like Netflix and Disney Plus and HBO Max aside from the broadcast networks. So Peacock’s quite at the moment firmly positioned as, ‘Hey, you like our broadcast channels. Here’s more of the stuff you love from a new streaming perspective.’ And again, that’s fine — potentially. But it’s likely to drive people towards the ad-funded tier as opposed to premium.”
Peacock’s forthcoming slate includes a series based on Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol, an Andy Cohen-hosted drama series called Ex-Rated, and teen murder drama One of Us Is Lying. It’s too soon to tell whether these series have enough appeal to drive significant subscriber growth, but they lack the kind of splashy pre-premiere fanfare that other services often enjoy prior to the debut of big-budget title releases.
Roberts said during the earnings call that the company remains “optimistic” about its future programming slate, which includes the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Monday Night Football, originals, and pay-one streaming rights to Universal films after they debut in theaters beginning in 2022. But even those pay-one exclusives are split with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Peacock will get those films first, but they’ll eventually head to two much larger services with diverse content libraries and deeper production pockets.
Peacock has also grabbed back a lot of the NBC titles that performed exceptionally well on services like Netflix while they were still being licensed out. It also holds exclusive streaming rights to programming from the WWE Network. But no service is going to survive the streaming wars simply by leaning on pro-wrestling, The Office, and Parks and Recreation. That’s particularly true if Peacock wants anyone to actually pay for its service, and surely it does. Much of its original content is locked away behind its paid tiers. Why invest in producing original shows for the service if nobody’s actually watching them?
The service’s reliance on Olympics streaming also seems like a strange long-play business strategy, as the Games only come around every two years. Plus, its Olympics coverage won’t even stick around on the service post-Games. Its dedicated Olympics hub will vanish from the service on August 11th, a spokesperson confirmed to The Verge (though originals like Golden and For Ball and Country will stick around long-term).
“It seems like an interesting strategy to attract viewers based around the Olympics. That’s not sustaining in and of itself, even if there was more coverage,” said David Arditi, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington. Arditi wrote the book Streaming Culture: Subscription Platforms And The Unending Consumption Of Culture, which closely examines the streaming wars.
Broughton said Peacock is now faced with a decision about whether it wants to compete with the deep-pocketed, major players in streaming like Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and Apple TV trying to grab subscriber dollars, or whether it wants to compete more like price-sensitive but ad-supported services like Hulu. That said, Broughton argued that Peacock’s hybrid model will allow it to experiment with what’s working and “test out a few different strategies without fully committing from day one.”
Peacock’s content skews more heavily toward old guard network programming rather than the innovative films and series being produced by the likes of Netflix, Disney, and Apple. There might be enough of an appetite for that content to keep the service afloat. But in a world where cultural moments like Ted Lasso and WandaVision win viewers, Peacock will need to figure out its strategy — and fast.