Streaming the Olympics Shouldn’t Be This Tricky

NBCU’s Peacock presents a challenging and ultimately disappointing user experience

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Last year, the 2020 Olympics were meant to help launch NBC’s new streaming platform, Peacock, but instead, sat the year out due to COVID. For an Olympics originally destined to be tied to a streaming service in an on-demand world, it seems stuck in a prime-time linear TV world, a category that has been on the decline for years. A Trade Desk survey at the beginning of the year predicted that 27% of U.S. households would cut their pay TV subscriptions by the end of the year, which is almost double the number of people who reported cutting the cord in 2020.

Ultimately, COVID added accelerant to the cord-cutting trends that were already afoot. Live sports have traditionally been held up as one of the strongest pay TV retention drivers. Last year, however, live sports were severely curtailed due to the pandemic. Now, almost 39% of sports fans are watching live sports events via connected TV such as ad-supported streaming and social media platforms.

And so, this year, NBCUniversal had a significant opportunity to put the spotlight on Peacock. At the same time, the company was absorbed with the immense ad revenue potential across all platforms. And so, a hybrid viewing model of broadcast and streaming options came to be. Inevitably, offering 7,000 hours of events between two broadcast networks, six cable networks and multiple digital platforms was bound to be challenging and a bit messy.

Give me on demand

I grew up in a prime-time world filled with Cheers, ER and Seinfeld. However, those days are behind us, and consumer-led viewing calls for giving viewers the ability to watch what they want, whenever they want it. The NBC broadcast network serves as the cornerstone of Olympics viewing and highlights the prime-time time slot with 17 nights of consecutive coverage. That said, even saying the word “prime time” appears dated, like asking where the telephone booth is at the mall. Not a great look for a network trying to highlight its innovations in streaming.

This isn’t the hope in streaming. It’s the expectation.

Even on Peacock, watching whenever you want isn’t possible. As I write this, I’m watching the women’s gymnastics all-around final on Peacock live, but if you miss that, you will have to wait for the replay after 9 p.m. If I paid for Peacock and couldn’t watch live, I would need to wait for the replay after the prime-time airing on NBC at 8 p.m. For cord cutters, this misses the mark. The replay should be immediately offered for viewers to watch whenever they want. This isn’t the hope in streaming. It’s the expectation, which is exactly why Peacock has been slammed in Reddit comments.

In addition, the entire Peacock Olympics strategy seems to be built akin to a linear TV menu with ‘Tokyo Now’ serving as the main live network available from 6 a.m.-11 a.m. Replays are only available to paying customers at either $4.99 per month with ads or $9.99 per month without ads. Crafting a free strategy for a subscription service is like setting up a good cliffhanger in a TV show, leaving the customer breathless for more. As a free Peacock user, I can’t even see a tile for a replay of what I watched this morning until tonight. So, some viewers may think that the replay is simply not available at all.

Search without discovery

Events are listed with their run times but there is no indication as to when that match initially happened.Search for “Gymnastics” on

I now consider searching for specific events to be an Olympic sport of its own. Google offers some customized search results, which are helpful, but if I try to search within Peacock, NBC Sports or, I go down a spiral of investigation that leaves me exhausted. Events are listed with their run times, but there is no indication as to when that match initially happened. Instead of the most recent events being at the top of the search results, the most current events are at the end of the results. All these small missteps lead to a challenging experience for viewers to find what they are looking for and inevitably friction that may lead them to abandon and look for other options.

Too many commercials

I’d love to see an analysis of the ad load from this Olympics versus 2016 in Rio but regardless, it feels like too many ads. The worst offense to me is when the ad is wrapped around video from the competition. Those who shelled out $9.99 a month for the Premium ad-free version of Peacock are faced with a black screen during the ad breaks. Ouch.

No connection to social commentary

Rather than a platform like TikTok or Twitter owning the social commentary at the Games, why not integrate these social platforms into Peacock? Engagement would be higher if these conversations were to be empowered natively versus on outside platforms. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg’s expert assessments, but social media users know better than anyone that the comments are often better than the video itself.

Peacock’s retention opportunity

This week, Comcast reported that Peacock had 54 million customer sign-ups at the end of Q2—a 50% jump from the company’s previous quarter when the company reported 42 million sign-ups. With more sign-ups expected before the start of the Olympics on July 23, the vital objective should be retaining active users on the platform. With Peacock creating a confusing viewer experience, its spotlight moment is a bit dimmer than I had expected.

That said, the challenge for any streaming service is to retain viewers once acquired, and in this instance, that takes the right viewing experience as well as enough parallel programming choices for viewers to remain engaged.