The debut of NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock is already facing a number of disruptions due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: Marketing for the service was upended with the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics, which would have kicked off shortly after its July 15 national launch. Production of many of its original shows and movies has ground to a halt, along with the rest of Hollywood. And NBCUniversal and Comcast employees involved in the streamer’s debut are now forced to ready the service almost entirely remotely.
But with the speedbumps come opportunity, and it’s no secret that TV viewing is soaring amid housebound Americans. That’s why the streaming service is looking into moving up its July nationwide debut.
“Some have asked, ‘Is there an opportunity to launch Peacock nationally even sooner?’” Matt Strauss, the chairman of Peacock and NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, told reporters on a press conference call this afternoon. “It is something we are evaluating—we certainly see the value.”
In the meantime, NBCUniversal’s Peacock team has plenty to do. The company is debuting a limited beta test of Peacock’s ad-supported premium tier to Comcast Xfinity X1 and Flex customers, which will roll out Wednesday to those customers on their television devices.
That beta won’t include a mobile app, a connected TV app or a website nor an ad-free tier; those features are part of the national rollout. But it will start to introduce customers to a service that NBCUniversal hopes will bridge the gap between live and on-demand viewing.
Peacock’s beta version divides programming up into channels, a trending section and a browse section. The channels section offers live programming (a more traditional television experience) and the browse section offers an on-demand search element where viewers can browse by genre, show and editor’s picks. Trending offers a mix of both—where news, sports, entertainment and recent or popular clips are surfaced multiple times a day, recommending new shows for viewers to consider. (That section is the first to appear when a viewer opens up Peacock.)
“The Peacock product is in some respects three streaming experiences in one, providing users multiple ways to watch,” Strauss said. “This approach of providing multiple ways to watch at different moments in time we believe will allow viewers to stream more, search less and adds a path to grow overall usage, frequency and satisfaction of the service.”
The beta version will roll out with 10 advertising partners who will begin testing and learning what advertising works best on the service. That will be a long-term process; it will take until the end of April for Peacock to become available to all customers who are part of the beta, said Dana Strong, president of consumer services, Comcast Cable.
The service, which is ad-supported and contains about 15,000 hours of programming (including an upcoming slate of originals), will be free for those included in the beta; when it arrives later, it will cost mostly everyone else $4.99 per month. In January, NBCUniversal said that Cox customers will also get Peacock’s premium ad-supported tier for no additional cost upon its national debut, and the company is now pursuing similar partnerships.
“Over the course of the coming months, our ambition is that everyone in the country will either be able to get access to the free version or will be able to get access to the premium version through some sort of bundling,” he said.
That goal is in line with Peacock’s aggressive approach to emphasizing its free tier, or tiers, depending on a customer’s cable or internet provider. Strauss emphasized that Peacock was committed to making its entirely free tier “good,” and said that with widespread economic disruption, there wasn’t a better time to introduce a free entertainment option from the company.
“Delivering Peacock, a quality, ad-supported streaming platform that is free, is arguably more relevant now than possibly at any other moment in time, and something that we believe is important to bring to market and to the country,” Strauss said. “As people are seeking out entertainment choices that are truly affordable, nothing is more affordable than free.”
The price point and emphasis on bundling comes as one of Peacock Premium’s biggest selling points—its slate of originals—faces significant hurdles due to production shutdown. It’s unclear when any of Peacock’s original programming will be able to resume filming again.
“Clearly a lot has changed,” Strauss said. “The majority of our original productions, like virtually all productions around the world, have paused. For a new service like Peacock, this will materially limit our slate at launch at 2020.”
Some originals, including Brave New World, a movie sequel to USA’s Psych, and reboots of Punky Brewster and Saved By The Bell, are likely to appear on the service in 2020, Strauss said, since production was nearly complete.
With that said, Peacock executives are already focused on the potential for future marketing and subscriber boosts when delayed programming will arrive belatedly to the service and when it will hopefully get a major promotional push around the Olympics.
“What is postponed in 2020 will come back to us even bigger in 2021, just as Peacock will arguably really be really hitting its stride,” Strauss said. “If you fast-forward a few months, Peacock will now have two Olympics in a relatively short period of time.”