Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a major media company is launching a new streaming television service, backed by its library of exclusive content, but debuting to a market full of customers wary of increasingly expensive streaming TV shows and movies. This week—today, in fact—it’s Peacock, from NBCUniversal.
But Peacock is having an even harder time of it than most. If streaming subscription fatigue is a rock, then the entrenched positions of technology platforms is a hard place, as NBC is now arguing with Amazon and Roku to try to gain access to their massive smart TV audiences. On top of both said rock and hard place, NBC has to appease an entirely different category of customers: its local TV affiliates, a loose coalition of smaller media companies left out in the cold of the new streaming world.
In short, Peacock is in trouble. Calling it “doomed” would be premature, but in an incredibly crowded marketplace, Peacock has few friends and many roadblocks.
The Good News
But let’s step back a bit and focus on what Peacock is and what it has going for it. First and foremost, it has NBCUniversal’s back catalog of television shows and a smaller selection of movies. That’s a big plus, especially if you like mainstream American comedy. Staples of NBC’s lineup are the biggest draws: Saturday Night Live, The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, et cetera. Peacock is leaning hard on this: Psych fans can watch an exclusive new movie, Psych 2: Lassie Come Home, on day one.
NBC is all-in on Peacock as its new streaming hub. To help sell that, new episodes of currently-running TV will air the following day on Peacock. For some users, anyway—more on that later.
It also has news from the NBC, CNBC, and MSNBC stable, a selection of mostly-older Universal movies (but including blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Shrek, and The Matrix), and a surprisingly varied collection of Spanish language content from subsidiary Telemundo, plus dubbed versions of much of its English catalog. Peacock has a “channels” selection of live streaming content a la Hulu+Live TV, but that’s mostly news and reruns.
Sports is a definite low point at the moment, with the English Premier League being the service’s only big draw. That might change as American football comes back (if it comes back) since NBC can leverage its Sunday Night Football program, the biggest single game of every week during the season.
All of that’s fairly competitive, though not quite as targeted as the curated collections in HBO Max or Disney+. But Peacock has an ace up its sleeve: it’s free. Sort of.
You Can’t Beat Free (But You Can Upgrade It)
About 60% of Peacock’s content (13,000 hours) can be streamed for free with ads in the US. In that sense, it’s basically an online version of NBC’s terrestrial television offerings. One wonders why more TV media companies don’t try that, especially as online advertising surpasses traditional television revenue. But I digress.
If you want full access to the entire Peacock library, 20,000 hours of video, you can pay $5 a month. This tier still has ads, but it includes a more expanded back catalog and some original shows like an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, spy thriller The Capture, and a revival of kid’s favorite Curious George. This also gets you access to those next-day shows currently airing on NBC and its partner cable networks, like USA, Syfy, Bravo, E!, and Universal Kids. Free users have to wait a week.
That’s a good deal compared to the streaming competition…but very much like Hulu, that cheap price means you’ll still have to deal with video ads on most content. If you want the whole shebang, the full library of TV and movies, next-day new shows, and no ads, it’s $10 a month.
It might not have escaped your notice that a lot of those staple NBC comedies used to be staples of lineups on Netflix and Hulu. And that’s part of the problem: customers used to subscribing to just one or two services for low-cost cord-cutting are now searching for their shows and movies on five, six, or seven, counting up the cost of those subscriptions. It’s starting to look a lot like the bad old days of cable, especially if you want live TV channels as well.
But the other part of the problem might be even bigger. Peacock has the usual bare minimums of a new streaming platform: you can access its content through a web browser or an app on iOS or Android (though the latter doesn’t seem to be live just yet). It’s also on the Apple TV, Android TV and Chromecast, Xbox One, and Smart TV platforms from Vizio and LG, plus a smattering of cable boxes from Cox and Xfinity (which is a corporate cousin through NBCUniversal’s owner, Comcast). A PS4 app is scheduled to go live next week.
Notice anything missing? You probably do if you’re one of about eighty million Americans who use either Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV platform for your smart TV. Despite the fact that the vanilla NBC TV app is available on both, Peacock is launching without Roku or Amazon support. Peacock shares this lack of access with the new HBO Max service.
Why? Money, and lots of it. A Variety report quotes various sources and analysts that say both Roku and Amazon want to offer Peacock and HBO Max as an add-on for their platforms instead of (or in addition to) a dedicated smart TV app. Offering those “channels” as upgrades to freebie Roku or Amazon Prime Video accounts would net them a cut of those subscriptions, which doesn’t happen from apps alone. Advertising revenue and customer data collection are included in the mix. NBCUniversal and Warner Media are, naturally, resisting.
This presents a particular problem for Peacock, which is hoping to appeal to less affluent streamers with its introductory tier of free TV and movies. Roku and Fire TV are more than just set-top boxes, they’re pre-baked smart TV platforms, pre-installed on some of the most popular budget TVs around. Between Roku and Amazon, an enormous selection of budget brands are covered: Toshiba, TCL, Sharp, Philips, Sanyo, Hitachi, RCA, Westinghouse, HiSense, and Best Buy’s house brand Insignia, among others.
There are workarounds for this—millions of people who own one of these Roku or Amazon-powered TVs will also have a PS4, Xbox, or Chromecast. But it’s a glaring omission for a service trying to stand out among well-established giants of streaming content.
Squeezed From Top and Bottom
As if that wasn’t bad enough, NBCUniversal has a mutiny on its hands. Its terms for streaming brand new shows one day (or one week, for free tiers) after they air on terrestrial TV has angered the owners of NBC’s local affiliates. Unlike the centralized world online, NBC’s over-the-air TV is still very much dependent on licensing agreements with the smaller companies that own local TV stations outside of major metropolitan markets.
And those owners are not happy. They think that if viewers comfortable with watching through mobile apps, browsers, and smart TVs can watch shows a day later, some of them without annoying advertisements, many won’t bother to pay attention to local TV for anything except news and live sports. Hulu had issues with this in the early days, but local media conglomerates are seeing Peacock as a way for NBC to completely cut them out of their lucrative audience.
They’re making their displeasure known in a very direct way: placing themselves directly between NBC’s content and its viewers. Vulture reports that five local media conglomerates, Gray, Hearst, Nexstar, Tegna, and Sinclair, are refusing to broadcast the new 30 Rock Reunion special. Between them, they own local NBC channels reaching about half of US TV viewers.
This highly-anticipated comedy special, reuniting the beloved 30 Rock cast and produced within and at least partially about the COVID-19 pandemic, was scheduled to air tomorrow, July 16th. It’ll be live on Peacock the following morning, for (presumably) millions of customers who’ve signed up today and are eligible for a week’s trial of the premium tier.
But if you want to watch it live, you might be out of luck. If previous disputes over late night talk shows are any indication, this could be a running theme of NBC’s relationships with its affiliate stations for the near future. A worst-case scenario, something of a TV nuclear option, would be local affiliates refusing to air major sporting events like Sunday Night Football or the Olympics (if and when they return). That seems unlikely, if only because it would really piss off TV viewers…but we’ve seen plenty of pissing matches between media companies before.
More Options, More Problems
After checking out Peacock on launch day for this article, I have to say it looks pretty good from a user perspective. Free options are always nice, and Peacock’s web-based portal is solid, if not outstanding. It’s a nice option as yet another freebie service, joining a growing number of ad-supported portals like Fox’s Tubi, Amazon’s IMBDtv, or Sony’s Crackle.
But I can’t say I’m reaching for my wallet. If I was going to pay for anything it would be the $10 ad-free tier, but most of Peacock’s catalog is made up of NBC content I saw (or skipped) years ago. I’d be more likely to spend that money on Netflix or Disney+, with their bigger variety of newer movies and shows, not to mention easy access on my Roku-powered TCL TV.
As media companies hoard their content collections into separate silos, online streaming is only going to become more and more fractured. Add complicated platforms of data and advertising, plus competing 20th century media like terrestrial TV and cable desperate to survive, and you’ve got a confusing miasma for both services and the customers they want to attract. It is, in a word, a mess.