Peacock Launch: NBCUniversal Tries New Way to Deliver Old-Fashioned Bundle of TV

In the big unveiling Thursday on the “Saturday Night Live” stage at 30 Rock, NBCUniversal leaders described Peacock as a 21st century iteration of a broadcast network.

For sure, the Comcast answer to the streaming wars is taking a broadcasters’ approach to programming and distributing the service that Comcast hopes might eventually represent the next generation of NBC and its sibling channels. It’s a left turn from the drive by Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple into the commercial-free subscription realm to compete with Netflix and other streamers.

“Streaming is transforming the way we get our entertainment and media and is clearly the next significant technology iteration for consumer entertainment and news for the next generation,” Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts said to the crowd of Wall Street analysts that gathered in Studio 8H. “It’s a tremendously positive business opportunity that will give us years of growth and new avenues of innovation that were not technologically possible just a few years ago.”

NBCUniversal hopes to use the club of retransmission consent for its O&O stations and carriage renewals for its cable channels to gain valuable distribution for Peacock via MVPD operating systems. Peacock will be ad-supported, which means circulation is important. NBCU plans to give Peacock to operators for free in order to juice its initial user base. Peacock has committed to carrying no more than five minutes per hour of commercials as a means of improving the user experience. The more widely Peacock is sampled, the better for NBCU to deliver for its advertisers.

NBCU has a number of MVPD pacts coming up for renewal by early 2021, including its contract with DirecTV. That will give the company ample opportunity to press operators to carry the Peacock app on their programming home pages, which will drive valuable circulation. And because NBCU is offering Peacock for free, executives don’t expect too much pushback. The higher-tier version of Peacock will become the authenticated streaming app for MVPD subscribers, allowing NBCU to better control the user experience and, more important, monetization. The Peacock Premium tier with all of the original content will cost $4.99, but it will be free to MVPD subscribers and it might be offered as a bundled carrot for broadband-only cable customers as well. 

NBCU executives emphasized that the company is drawing from all of its existing assets to assemble an on-demand programming vault that delivers a full menu of entertainment, news, sports, business information and Spanish-language content. There’s also a DreamWorks Animation-enriched section for kids and family fare. 

The service will include a host of live short-form clips of news and sports, using its established stars. NBCU’s investment in Olympic rights will be well exploited in short-form and documentary content on Peacock. NBC News stars Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Rachel Maddow, Chuck Todd and Becky Quick were on stage at the presentation, upfront style, to talk up plans for “curated” news and info segments produced for Peacock by NBC News, CNBC and NBC Sports.

In his waning months as NBCU leader, outgoing chairman Steve Burke made a strong defense of the old-fashioned ad-supported broadcast TV model. And he admitted to the crowd that even the mighty NBC is still struggling to turn a profit on content in the digital realm. 

Most of the company’s streaming at present comes from YouTube, Facebook and Hulu, and most of it is “not well monetized,” Burke said. “We’re leaving money on the table as our shows are being watched in places where we don’t monetize.”

NBCUniversal has faced skepticism about its approach given that consumers clearly have embraced commercial-free platforms. Burke and other NBCU executives emphasized over and over that “premium” ad-supported broadcast TV has been “a proven business model for decades.” Matt Strauss, chairman of Peacock and NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, noted that when users open the Peacock app, some form of programming will begin playing immediately, “just like TV.”

Strauss and NBCUniversal advertising chief Linda Yaccarino mentioned more than once that consumers are likely to soon feel “subscription fatigue” with so many new players chasing a monthly check for video packages.

Analysts who attended the event said NBCU gets credit for not joining the pack going after high-end subscription dollars. NBCU is banking on “free” as being a big selling point to consumers, especially if an economic slowdown hits. But it has been faulted by some for not making a more significant pivot to streaming for its content assets. On Thursday, Burke and Co. made it clear that they were comfortable experimenting with a new way to deliver a traditional big bundle of programming, and a traditional way to pay for it. 

Peacock will offer a “front porch” free option of about 7,500 hours of on-demand programming and curated streaming channels of “SNL” and other shows from NBC’s vault. NBCU unveiled a boatload of original programming for Peacock in an effort to lure subscribers to the Peacock Premium deeper library of 15,000 hours offered for $4.99 a month, or $9.99 with no advertising. The Premium option also has the clever choice to offer early access to late-night stalwarts “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” — at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET, respectively. NBCU is also spending some money on acquisitions for non-NBCU shows such as “Two and a Half Men’ and movies from Lionsgate. Last year it forked over $500 million to reclaim streaming rights to one of its own — “The Office” — from Netflix, where the offbeat 2005-2013 NBC comedy proved a huge hit. 

NBCUniversal estimates it will hit break even on Peacock by the end of 2024 after a cumulative $2 billion investment. It expects to have 30 million-35 million “active accounts” over the same time frame. Comcast projects it will realize about $6-$7 of revenue per user (from advertising and subscriptions) by 2024, translating to about $2.5 billion in revenue. Peacock is set to launch on April 15 as a bundled option for Comcast subscribers, and on July 15 to the broader market. 

The executive who has inherited the responsibility for making those numbers happen made brief remarks at the Peacock presentation. Jeff Shell, the Comcast and NBCUniversal veteran, became CEO on Jan. 1 and will go solo at the top after Burke retires as chairman on Aug. 14.

Shell, unsurprisingly, put a hopeful spin on Peacock’s future.

“It’s going to be one of the key elements of growth for NBCUniversal going forward,” he vowed.

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