Covid-19 Delayed Some Peacock Originals, but Execs Say It’s a ‘Blessing’

New streaming service's library titles are doing the heavy lifting for now

brave new world
Remote post-production allowed Peacock to have original series Brave New World ready for its national launch. Steve Schofield/Peacock
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Key insight:

NBCUniversal had big programming plans for the July 15 national debut of its ad-supported streamer Peacock.

But in what has become a familiar story across the industry, the strategy for the up-and-coming streaming service, which debuted Wednesday, was upended when Covid-19 prompted widespread production shutdowns. In April, Peacock chairman Matt Strauss said those changes would “materially limit” the number of originals that Peacock would launch with, and caused the postponement of the platform’s anticipated revivals like Saved by the Bell, as well as a broader pivot across the entire platform due to the pandemic.

As with many setbacks, there’s a silver lining. Executives say the delayed programming may work in their favor by sustaining interest in the service later into the year leading up to the 2021 Summer Olympics, which were delayed a year due the pandemic and had been planned to give Peacock a huge initial marketing boost.

“Overall, this may end up being another one of those blessings,” said Bill McGoldrick, president of original content at NBCUniversal Entertainment Networks and direct-to-consumer. “We may end up with more originals to space out over the next 18 months than we would have if we had dropped [more of] them at launch.”

What’s on Peacock, and what’s coming soon

Peacock premiered this week with nine original films and series available on its premium tier, including the drama Brave New World, which completed post-production remotely, and the comedy movie Psych 2: Lassie Come Home. None of the originals have been particularly buzzy out of the gate, but more originals will trickle onto the service this summer:

  • Hitmen, starring Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, lands on the service Aug. 6.
  • Australian comedy Five Bedrooms will debut Aug. 13.
  • The third season of comedy AP Bio (executive produced by recent Adweek cover star Seth Meyers) is set for a Sept. 3 premiere.
  • Canadian-British drama Departure will arrive on Sept. 17.

More originals, reboots and revivals are in the works, including Battlestar Galactica (from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail), Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell, but those will need more time to be completed. Saved by the Bell, which Peacock wanted to premiere sooner, was not able to wrap production prior to the shutdown, McGoldrick said.

“We did have to push some significant projects until we can start shooting again,” McGoldrick said. “Right now, we’re picking up where we left off.”

The challenge for Peacock, and for other streamers on the market looking to attract viewers, is to build out a catalog with broad appeal. For ad-supported streamers like Peacock, it’s not just about getting viewers to watch just one show but keeping them coming back for more, so they keep streaming more programming—and the ads associated with it.

With the kinks in the original production pipeline, that means Peacock’s deep library of owned and licensed content will have to do much of the heavy lifting to attract new viewers for now.

“We are working to understand the relationship between the originals and the acquired content to make sure there’s enough content—that if a viewer were to come in for an original show, that there’s enough library content or acquired content that is promotable to that viewer,” said Frances Manfredi, Peacock’s president of content acquisition and strategy.

Peacock thinks about its audience in several distinct buckets: young men and women, older men and women, kids and teens, and Spanish language and diverse content. The goal guiding Manfredi’s team is to ensure that on Peacock, “there really is something for everyone,” no matter that viewer’s taste.

Balancing favorites with new voices

Building Peacock’s library requires data about what programming is attractive to viewers. The streamer is already building out an understanding of what content is resonating based on the three-month beta test that rolled out to Comcast Xfinity customers in April.

Animated blockbusters like Shrek and classics like Jurassic Park predictably performed well during the beta, as did comedies and the hit drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, underscoring the importance of classic movies and well-loved series. Some shows have been even more even popular on Peacock than executives anticipated, including the Paramount Network western Yellowstone, which Peacock landed exclusive SVOD rights to stream.

“We think that the genre allocations and the investments that we’ve made in various genres is aligning very nicely with how we’re seeing people using the content,” Manfredi said. As the debut week progresses, the team will have much more viewership data to sift through.

That will also inform the originals team’s decisions going forward. “Every time you see something pop a little bit [on the service,] me and the other great people on my team will start to say, ‘Maybe we ought to invest in a script or a presentation in this category,’” McGoldrick said.

As ongoing protests against police brutality have shined a spotlight on racial injustice, the content teams have doubled down on bringing in diverse storytellers and voices. On the licensing and acquisition side, Manfredi is focused on having a more diverse offering in Peacock’s series library. To begin remedying that, Peacock is working on a documentary slate of pro-social series from Black writers and creators. The first installment will be on the platform by September.

Diversity has also become a big focus for originals. “We are looking at diverse talent as we were before this, but we are looking at content and looking to find in our originals the new voices—the people that can become the next Dick Wolf or Sam Esmail or Tina Fey,” McGoldrick said. “We’d love for them to be people of color.”

McGoldrick is optimistic about “a tremendous amount of enthusiasm” from writers who are pitching original programming ideas for the service, which will help his team when it comes to choosing the best projects to greenlight based on the new viewing data rolling in.

“A pandemic does not stop a writer from staying home and writing a script, and we’ve been able to assess a lot of material from couches and bedrooms,” McGoldrick said. “That part of the train has not slowed down at all.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.