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Starting Wednesday, millions of Comcast customers sheltering at home will gain access to a trove of 15,000 hours of TV shows and movies. The telecom giant’s NBCUniversal division is previewing its new streaming service, Peacock, three months ahead of its national rollout in what will be the first true test of how the coronavirus pandemic will impact a new entrant in the escalating streaming wars.
The ad-supported Peacock, which will be made available at no-cost to Comcast X1 and Flex customers, offers a mix of current programming, classic titles and early access to late night shows from Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers. A big draw will be its robust catalog of NBC comedies including 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Saturday Night Live. It also features Universal’s film library, from the Jurassic Park franchise to Schindler’s List.
The offering will begin to roll out Wednesday and will be available to all qualifying Comcast subscribers by the end of the month. But Comcast customers who sign up will have to wait until after Peacock’s July 15 wide launch to watch new originals like the utopian drama Brave New World.
NBCU executives are hoping that Peacock will thrive during its early preview, even without some of its biggest draws. After all, the shelter-in-place mandates that have spread across the country have contributed to a significant uptick in streaming video consumption. Americans streamed 161 billion minutes during the last week of March, according to Nielsen, compared to just 70 billion minutes during the same week last year. And, per Comcast, on-demand viewing is up 50 percent since the same period last year.
“Demand for news and entertainment is truly at an all-time high,” Matt Strauss, chairman of Peacock and NBCU Digital Enterprises, said during a pre-launch press conference. He added that families have also been using the time to revisit classic titles together.
Comcast is making it easy for its TV customers to access Peacock by integrating the service directly into its X1 and Flex experiences and promoting it both on the home screen and in other curated content hubs.
Peacock itself will offer a variety of experiences, including a TV grid of 20 channels — offering up everything from live news to late night clips to the best of SNL — that are programmed like linear networks. There also will be video playlists around trending topics or water-cooler moments that will be updated throughout the day.
Peacock is launching amid a boom time for streaming services. Last year saw the debut of Disney+, which has already amassed 50 million paid subscribers, and Apple TV+. Last week, mobile-first offering Quibi joined the fray. And WarnerMedia will debut HBO Max in May. They’re all chasing their slice of the subscription video market, which is dominated by Netflix and its 167 million global subscribers.
But the shutdown — an ensuing period of economic uncertainty with more than 16 million Americans unemployed — has led to questions about how much people will pay to stay entertained while they are stuck at home. Peacock may be well positioned if viewers become more cost-conscious. A version of the service with limited programming and advertising will be made available for free. For non-Comcast customers, the full offering, known as Peacock Premium, will cost $5 per month with ads and $10 without. That’s cheaper than HBO Max ($15 per month) and Netflix ($13 per month for the popular mid-tier plan).
“Delivering Peacock, a quality ad-supported streaming platform that is free, is arguably more relevant now,” said Strauss. “Nothing’s more affordable than free.”
Peacock has signed up 10 launch sponsors, including Unilever, Target, Capital One, Subaru and Verizon. The service will have no more than five minutes of advertising per hour, NBCU says. Although advertising had taken a hit during the pandemic, Strauss said that had not impacted Peacock’s ability to sign on brand partners.
Awareness of Peacock is lower than HBO Max, according to a THR/Morning Consult poll conducted for the week ending March 29. Of the 2,000 nationally representative adults surveyed, 17 percent had heard “a lot” or “some” about Peacock, compared to 24 percent who had the same awareness of HBO Max.
NBCU top brass plan to build awareness around Peacock between the April preview and the July wide launch. But the pandemic has caused a big shift in their strategy. Now that the Tokyo Olympics have been pushed to 2021, they’ve lost a major promotional vehicle. And some original programming that was supposed to be completed in time for the July launch — including the drama Dr. Death starring Jamie Dornan and Alec Baldwin — has also been delayed due to Hollywood’s production shutdown.
While that may change the projections around Peacock’s early ability to acquire subscribers, Strauss noted that there may be “a silver lining.” The streaming service will now have all of 2020 to ramp up in time for a big 2021, when some delayed originals will premiere and crown jewel The Office will leave Netflix for Peacock. “What was postponed in 2020 will come back to us even bigger in 2021 when Peacock will arguably be hitting its stride,” said the exec.
Strauss added that the company is also exploring opportunities to develop new programming that can be completed while people shelter in place. In particular, he noted, NBC would look to work with talent who may have new availability in their schedules while they wait for their normal work to resume.
The shift to work-from-home has hit not only Peacock productions but the service’s development. Strauss applauded his team, which has been able to continue developing Peacock while working remotely. He also said that the company is evaluating whether to launch Peacock nationally sooner than planned, but noted that “with the entire team working from home, July is still the target date.”
On Tuesday afternoon, hours before Peacock would go live, NBCU CEO Jeff Shell and Strauss sent a memo to staff thanking them for their work prepping the service in just a little over a year. “When we targeted April 15th as the launch date, we knew we had our work cut out for us, but never imagined we would be faced with the challenges that this global pandemic has created,” they wrote in the note, which was shared with The Hollywood Reporter. “Yet nothing has stopped us, even with the entire Peacock team, and much of the company at large, working from home in all parts of the world.”
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