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Peacock Isn’t Revolutionary, but It Is Free

In the age of peak streaming, competitive advantages are necessary. For NBCUniversal’s new platform, it’s the archive and the price point.

Peacock/Ringer illustration

The logo of the new streaming service Peacock is not actually a peacock, but six colored dots. Both the name and the palette are meant to invoke Peacock’s parent company NBCUniversal, itself under the umbrella of cable giant Comcast. But at the same time, it’s not supposed to remind viewers too much of its corporate cousin. “We made the strategic decision not to call ourselves NBC Plus,” chairman Matt Strauss told Vulture last week, in implied contrast to some natural comparisons. It’s simple: Peacock is the NBC streaming service, but it’s not just the NBC streaming service; it wants to leverage the brand on its back without being constrained by it. Simple!

Peacock’s contortions bring to mind those of HBO Max, its immediate predecessor in the still-raging Streaming Wars. Poring over its opening slate, contradictions abound. Peacock’s catalog is anchored by NBCU stalwarts—Bravo’s full battery of reality hits; USA’s expansive Blue Skies; sitcoms like Frasier and The Office, coming in 2021—but also has originals like a Westworld-esque Brave New World adaptation anchored by Alden Ehrenreich. (Many of those originals have IP tie-ins, like a Psych sequel movie and an upcoming Saved By the Bell reboot, adding to the confusion.) Peacock seems built to be an in-house host for lucrative titles in lieu of leasing out to third parties like Netflix—and yet Peacock itself is leasing outside offerings like the Western drama Yellowstone and romantic drama Phantom Thread. On a structural level, Peacock is both tied to the orthodox institution of broadcast television and an aspiring competitor to it, hence why many NBC affiliates refused to air the hybrid 30 Rock reunion and upfront presentation that served as an hourlong ad for the new product.

But Peacock has a competitive advantage that HBO Max, Disney+, and other recent contenders don’t: It’s free.

Of course, even the price point turns out to be somewhat conflicting. Peacock is a multitiered service. There is a free, introductory level, which still requires users to create an account linked to their email; a premium tier that costs $4.99 a month, but with ads; and a premium tier that costs $9.99 a month, for the same content (and name) but without ads. Peacock contends that the free tier is not a bare-bones facsimile meant to lure in subscribers with teasing hints of the real thing. Rather, it’s an attraction all its own: It has full seasons of everything from Real Housewives to Royal Pains, plus older classics like Columbo; next-day access to NBC shows in their first seasons; and live “channels” that simulate the experience of surfing a living room set with options like Today All Day and Saturday Night Live sketches. All in all, the free tier adds up to about 13,000 hours of content—and the ads are limited to just five minutes of commercials per hour, far less than on linear TV or even the ad-supported version of Hulu.

With so much on display in exchange for so little, what are Peacock’s Premium subscribers getting? The subscription unlocks a broad array of options: full seasons of Peacock originals (free users can access only the first few episodes); sports broadcasts, like Premier League soccer; next-day access to all currently airing NBC shows; and early access to late-night shows like Late Night with Seth Meyers (under a non-pandemic production schedule). But the premium tier ends up amounting to just 7,000 additional hours of content for a substantially higher price. The production of many Peacock originals is on hiatus due to the coronavirus, so those shows won’t serve as the enticement to cross the paywall as early as executives might have hoped.

Nor do the unexpected roadblocks stop there. The pandemic also foiled what was supposed to be Peacock’s perfect partnership: the summer Olympics in Tokyo, still set to air on NBC but now pushed to 2021. The service’s launch was timed to coincide with the Summer Games. Even beyond the state of the world, Peacock’s first few days have been far from seamless. Like WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal has yet to strike a deal with either Amazon or Roku, which collectively serve about 80 million active users; owners of devices like the Fire TV Stick or a Roku TV have to resort to an HDMI cable, Chromecast, or even just their tablet or desktop. Supposed marquee titles like Universal’s Fast & Furious have already disappeared due to the never-ending musical chairs match that is streaming rights. Conversely, a supposed flagship like 30 Rock remains available on both Hulu and Amazon Prime.

And yet, any account of Peacock’s shortcomings butts up against a basic and compelling fact: It has a lot of stuff people actually want to watch, and it allows them to watch it with minimal effort and expense. The “channels” tab is glitchy, hard to navigate, and confusing. (Why can you tune into a stream of old SNL material someone else has curated, but can’t pull up full episodes to watch for yourself?) But even if the feature isn’t exactly user-friendly, it is easy to ignore. Within minutes of opening the site, I found myself sucked into a binge of Below Deck Mediterranean, my gripes forgotten in a haze of blue waters and drunken squabbles. Peacock has much of the archival muscle of a contender like HBO Max, and that strategy for gaining traction has proved far easier than betting on unproven originals. It combines that draw with a near-negligible barrier to entry: Peacock is not a walled garden, but a semi-public park.

Peacock is the final debut in a slew of high-profile new entertainment hubs, starting with Disney+ and Apple TV+ last fall and continuing through Max and Quibi this spring. But according to Strauss, Peacock isn’t really intended as a direct competitor to its immediate predecessors, which are taking on entrenched digital natives with billions to burn. The free-but-ad-supported streaming space is much less crowded, at least for now. Current leaders include Tubi, recently acquired by Fox, and Pluto TV, under the auspices of ViacomCBS (but not to be confused with CBS All Access). Amazon is currently pushing the free IMDb TV (on which you can now watch Mad Men with ads), a theoretically distinct product from the streaming component of its Prime membership tier.

Peacock’s own branding struggles pale in comparison to these relative obscurities, though all of them are much lower stakes than the typical streaming play. No one will be forced to ask themselves if they have another line item in their content budget in the middle of a burgeoning recession. Even the need for a premium tier, Strauss also argued to Vulture, could eventually be rendered moot through partnerships with cable and internet providers like the ones Peacock now has with Cox and Xfinity, another Comcast subsidiary: “The longer-term vision is that we really believe that through bundling and through these partner integrations, both internet and pay TV, we’re going to be able to reach a majority of the country and give them some form of access to Peacock for free.” The proliferation of stand-alone services has started to make the one-stop shop of a cable package, and digital equivalents like Disney’s Hulu-ESPN+-Disney+ bundle look increasingly appealing. Peacock doesn’t shift this status quo so much as it leans into it, appealing to overtaxed cord-cutters and stalwart box owners alike.

Peacock achieves something promising in both its rollout and its use of advertising and distributors: It provides the convenience of streaming, spliced with the infrastructure of old-school cable. This also means the service’s first few months are less make or break than, say, the looming end of Quibi’s 90-day free trial. Peacock has plenty of time to settle in and figure itself out. And in the meantime, we have plenty of time to dive into some vintage Law & Order.