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Peacock Launch Shows Platform’s Potential, But Inspires Confusion (Column)

Even with a free option and back catalogs of shows like "The Office" and "Law & Order," Peacock has trouble laying out its many offerings to subscribers.

Peacock Streaming Service Variety Cover Story
Zohar Lazar for Variety

Peacock — the new streaming service owned by NBCUniversal — launched July 15, thus entering a fray of new options for streaming subscribers which this year has already seen entries by HBO Max and Quibi. Peacock’s value proposition so far seems heavily driven by its catalog, with past hits including “30 Rock” and “Cheers” as well as movies from Universal and Focus Features. Peacock also launched, unusually, with a free option including many shows and films as well as a paid subscription program in which more is available (though not without ads — unless you pay even more).

Variety TV critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discussed the service’s debut, what it does (and does not offer), the confusion surrounding its sports coverage and what may lie ahead.

D’Addario: Of the three big launches this year, I suspect two were really vexed by… this year. First, Quibi dropped in a world where the gaps that might be filled by super-short-form content on smartphones had melted away. Now, Peacock struts out with… a whole lot of Olympics catalog content and no Olympics.

Yes, there’s other stuff here, of course. But my eye was caught, as I first surfed the site, by the volume of Olympics material, including multiple “Peacock original” features on the history and power of the ceremony and the grit of its hopefuls as well as catalog docs on, say, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball “Dream Team” or the political upheavals of the 1968 Games. All of this is topped off by an hourlong look at Ryan Lochte’s life after his disastrous time in Rio four years ago. (I sampled a bit of this one, a sort of unrevealing therapy session, and learned that Lochte blames a lot of his issues on the way NBC framed him as a personality in its Olympics media. Which makes it a funny choice to include here!)

I’m dwelling on the Olympics stuff both because there’s not a ton else new here and because it seems apparent Peacock’s plumage shines a bit less bright without that promotional opportunity. The service’s big rollout original show is “Brave New World” — a fairly unexciting drama and one that was developed for Syfy and then ordered by USA. In other words, it doesn’t give much of a sense of Peacock’s identity, if there’s an identity there. Being the streaming home of the Olympics might have done that: without them, the content is a mixed bag, as I’m sure we’ll get to. 

But I’ve groused enough to start us off: What were your first impressions?

Caroline Framke: Right off the bat, the most intriguing aspect of Peacock to me is that it comes with a free option. Not a “free trial” (as Quibi’s launch depended upon), but a completely free option that only requires a name and email to sample the service. So in my initial browsing, I concentrated on what you can get on Peacock without paying a dime — and it really is quite a lot. (As an important caveat: I wasn’t able to watch Peacock on an actual television since it, like HBO Max before it, is still in talks with Amazon and Roku re: distributing Peacock on their connected-TV platforms. Figure it out, everyone!) The biggest problem, so far as I can see it, is that the current layout is completely inscrutable, and far more complicated than it needs to be.

In addition to the various libraries of content (including, notably, an extensive Spanish language section), there’s the “Channels” section, which basically acts as live television. I was glad to see that every show there — whether on “The Today Show” channel or the looping marathons of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and “Saturday Night Live” — seems to have decent closed captioning, but was annoyed to realize I couldn’t see more information about the airing episodes themselves, like, say, what year or season they’re from. Some shows — like “House,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and the original “Law & Order” — remain behind a paywall, but many, many others are available for perusing (albeit with a decent amount of ads). And I’m sure many people will be thrilled to have some older favorites like “Murder She Wrote,” “Johnny Carson” and “Columbo” available for free on demand, commercials or no.

Peacock also tries to be helpful with categories; some are more useful than others. (“Reality Fix,” for example, is more straightforward than “It’s a Living,” which seems to include shows of every genre about workplaces, or something.) I was particularly bewildered by some of the clip collections. “The Office” — a Peacock crown jewel, given its previous Netflix success — has a few that seem, at first glance, to be useful ways in. But in practice, they’re truly random. The “Beginner’s Guide” to “The Office,” for one, starts with a clip of two major characters having a baby together, which happens deep into the series. And when browsing through the “Parties and Outings” collection, it was jarring to see the second clip kick off with Steve Carell’s Michael Scott at a Christmas party making a joke about “Tranny Claus,” especially after the highly public instance recently of creator Greg Daniels agreeing to cut a blackface punchline out of the show entirely. (I don’t particularly advocate for either joke being stricken from the record, but the approach to what’s apparently acceptable and not is interesting, to say the least.)

How did you find the user experience of Peacock, Dan? Did it make a bit more sense to you than it did to me, or are you also coming away with more questions than answers?

DD: I’m glad that you thought to check out the free option; I took advantage of the pre-launch discount and paid twenty-five dollars for a year of access, for “Peacock Premium,” which sounded to me like the best deal there was. (And $25 for a year of this much catalog content is, for a serious media consumer, a pretty good deal.) I understand that everyone’s got to monetize, but I was genuinely surprised that the “Premium” paid deal was ad-supported, and it’s an extra five bucks a month to go ad-free; I wasn’t offended or anything, but not for the first time this year, we see a service launch with fairly confounding choices as regards language and communication of what’s actually on offer.

Speaking of HBO Max, I’d draw a distinction between its debut and Peacock’s; the WarnerMedia streaming site has very clear “hubs” within it, so that you can head to, say, the Turner Classic Movies collection or the all-Looney Tunes platform. A lot of the content here is totally undelineated along lines that make sense. A movie fan like me would really appreciate a portal for all the movies from Comcast-owned Universal’s prestige shingle, Focus Features. (Or, all of them that are available; presumably due to the vicissitudes of streaming rights, various iconic Focus films from “Brokeback Mountain” to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” ended up “Lost in Translation.”) The closest we come to a coherent system here are subcategories like “Serious Cinema,” which includes everything from Focus’ “Atonement” and “Phantom Thread” to “Blue Crush 2” and “Dear Santa.” (The latter of these was directed by Jason Priestley for the Lifetime network and concerns “a rich girl whose parents threaten to cancel her credit cards if she doesn’t change her life” and so decides to change her life by making “a little girl’s Christmas dream come true by marrying her father.” Talk about atonement!)

As a platform, Peacock is… undifferentiated. There’s good stuff around, but it requires significantly more poking about than on HBO Max, its most obvious analogue. That may be because HBO Max had more vast archives, but I’d posit that Peacock hasn’t yet figured out how to put its best foot forward.

CF: Peacock does have a ton of material to recommend it; a TV fan who doesn’t have cable would probably benefit from subscribing even if only for satisfying the particular itch of not knowing what to watch, so hey, why not throw on some live TV and let it run? But there are, as is understandable for a nascent service, absolutely some organizational kinks to work out still. 

The sports coverage, for instance, is downright confusing. As you mentioned, part of that is no doubt thanks to the fact that the entire genre of live sports is a giant question mark right now. But as sports slowly but surely start back up again, they should be a huge part of Peacock’s appeal, should Peacock figure out how to package it all. 

For instance: I’m currently a subscriber to the NBC Sports Gold service, which has a fairly hefty price tag for far less content than what a Premium Peacock account would get me. So on that front, Peacock wins. But the interface of Sports Gold, while never amazing, is much more straightforward than Peacock. At present, it only appears to have clips and recaps, despite NBC saying that all NBC Sports Gold content (which will be folded into Peacock as of July 31) is available on Peacock Premium. Searching for a specific sports franchise like the Premier League yielded a smattering of highlights dating back just a few weeks; I couldn’t find any full event replays or classic matches to speak of on Peacock, though they’re currently still available to stream on NBC Sports Gold.

This will apparently change once the new seasons commence, but in the meantime, it’s both nonsensical (why not throw older matches on the new service at launch?) and a major loss. It’ll also be interesting to see how Peacock chooses to highlight its live sports coverage. For today’s launch, it will be streaming several Premier League matches for free — but there’s no landing page for people to find in advance, or even a basic calendar detailing what’s coming up. I guess they’ll just appear once they’re live, but for anyone who’s not a diehard, that hardly seems useful.

All in all, Peacock’s labyrinthine layout makes it seem like it’s almost overwhelmed itself with everything it has to offer. Its smartest choice, therefore, might be making so much free at the start, so that subscribers can maybe wait on investing in yet another streaming service until it’s figured out how to better package its own content.