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‘The Office’ Is Peacock’s Hail Mary

And based on the paywall, it’s clear the streaming service knows it

NBCUniversal/Ringer illustration

To say that The Office is now streaming on Peacock is an understatement. As of January 1, The Office is now anchoring Peacock, the streaming service from NBCUniversal that launched this past summer to neither massive acclaim nor resounding jeers. With a free tier and a solid back catalog, Peacock is not a multibillion-dollar punch line like Quibi, the most enjoyable meltdown of late capitalism since MoviePass. But without a marquee original like The Mandalorian or a dominating parent company, Peacock also didn’t emerge as a strategy-shifting success like Disney+, another relative newcomer to the arms race started by Netflix more than half a decade ago.

The landfall of The Office, anticipated since the sitcom’s exit from Netflix was announced more than a year and a half ago, is an attempt to shape things up. On Netflix, the show’s transformation into an emblem of the streaming era was accidental. It became a makeshift bridge between the time when The Office was actually on the air and when platforms like Netflix began financing their own originals while stopgap shows were repatriated to their original rights holders.

On Peacock, The Office is a deliberate centerpiece. Fire up the service on your TV and you’ll be met with three separate prompts to watch The Office, all before you encounter an original show like A.P. Bio or even a licensed title like Jurassic Park. There’s the plain-Jane, nine-season version, of course. But there’s also “superfan episodes,” featuring extended cuts of Season 3’s 23 installments. (More seasons will get the expanded treatment starting in March.) And then there’s the portal to “The Office Collection,” an exhaustive compilation of Office clips and episodes sorted into every category imaginable: Cold Opens; Best of Dwight; Guest Stars; The Story of Jim & Pam; cast members’ favorite episodes; behind-the-scenes footage.

But that’s not all! There’s an entire “channel,” Peacock’s curious feature simulating the experience of live television, dedicated to The Office 24/7, joining a similar one for Saturday Night Live. But instead of full episodes on a loop, The Office’s channel features ambient footage of a crossword puzzle, a desktop sand garden, and other minutiae, soundtracked by ringing phones and the hum of an industrial HVAC. Fittingly called “The Office Zen,” the channel is meant to replicate “the sights and sounds of an office for anyone working at home,” per Peacock’s press missive. Like many promotional gimmicks hatched by marketing departments rather than actual TV writers, the channel seems to miss the point of The Office so profoundly it could be a joke on The Office: You may not be able to access the human interaction and camaraderie that can make mindless cubicle work almost worth it, but you can still have the distracting noise and visual monotony! Thank the good folks in corporate later.

Scroll down far enough on the Collection page, however, and you’ll find a gambit that’s both telling and more promising. After clips of the show’s final table read and a sampler curated by Kate Flannery, you’ll find gentle transitions away from The Office entirely. A list titled “On the Job” includes direct Office descendants like Parks and Recreation and Superstore, but also more eclectic picks like House and Below Deck. The Office Alums on the Silver Screen” features John Krasinski’s Away We Go and Angela Kinsey’s All-Stars. And cast members don’t just pick their favorite episodes of their own show—they also highlight what’s on offer elsewhere on Peacock. Apparently, Oscar Nunez is a fan of Ray Donovan.

This is what NBCUniversal paid half a billion dollars for: The Office not just as a sensation in its own right, but a foundation for an entire new enterprise. Peacock missed out on the 2020 Olympics, which was meant to be a major promotional tie-in for the service, and then had to wait a few months for The Office to migrate over from its previous home. Now that the eagle has finally landed, we can see how Peacock plans to use it—namely, as a lure for subscribers who can then be guided into checking out what else the service has to offer. The Office is so important to Peacock’s endgame that the platform endlessly marketed as free (albeit with caveats) has put it behind a paywall. Only the first two seasons, with ads, will be available to subscribers outside Peacock’s premium tiers.

As of last month, Peacock had racked up 26 million sign-ups, a number the arrival of The Office will presumably help to boost. That’s more than double that of HBO Max, Peacock’s closest analog with a similar set of strengths and weaknesses. Like Peacock, Max has a battery of popular mainstays like Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and more recently, The West Wing and Gossip Girl. Max, too, took a while to click into place by inking deals with important distributors like Roku and rolling out high-profile features. (The Flight Attendant, Max’s buzziest original to date, was pushed from summer to winter by pandemic-related delays.) Max has struggled to get existing HBO subscribers to take advantage of something they’ve already paid for, and Peacock has its own issues: 26 million is a big number, but it looks a bit low when you consider Peacock’s entry-level option requires nothing more than an email—and Premium is technically included gratis if you’re already a Comcast customer.

The Office, then, is Peacock’s late-breaking trump card. It’s easy to be skeptical about how much a streaming service can lean on just one show. (Did Netflix become so successful because it had The Office, or did The Office gain a second life because it was on a platform with a head start?) Peacock is essentially selling a DVD box set with extra features, but without the security of physical ownership and with a monthly subscription fee instead of a one-time transaction. Even before all the bells and whistles, though, The Office alone at one point accounted for nearly 3 percent of Netflix’s total U.S. viewing, a jaw-dropping figure considering just how much Netflix has in its collection.

Six months in, Peacock hasn’t set itself up to complete with Netflix in volume. Its biggest success story thus far is likely the surprisingly great reboot of Saved by the Bell, though even that felt more like catnip for jaded critics than a popular sensation. Instead, Peacock has a quiet foundation of unflashy staples, now joined by the unflashiest not-so-secret weapon there is. It’s already ironic for an aesthetically drab workhorse like The Office to become the hottest commodity of a new, tech-driven landscape. Its debut on Peacock brings such irony to a new extreme. Welcome to the future, when the hopes of a cable-entertainment conglomerate rest on a fictional paper company in northeastern Pennsylvania.