Peacock, NBC’s new streaming service, wants you to watch ads

Apple showed up to the streaming wars with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Disney arrived with Baby Yoda and the Avengers. HBO Max is bringing Friends.

Now it’s Comcast’s turn. And the cable and TV giant thinks it can get a leg up on its rivals by offering something very different: free video, plus ads.

Which, it turns out, is pretty much exactly how Comcast’s NBCUniversal group described its new Peacock service at a Thursday rollout: Like other services, Peacock will boast a mix of old TV movies and TV shows, including The Office (in 2021), and some new stuff, including a Battlestar Galactica reboot. It will also offer bells and whistles, like sneak peeks of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show and a big dose of the 2020 Olympics.

But the main selling point Comcast executives kept coming back to at their presentation was that the main version of Peacock will be free, and that the company expects to make most of its money by selling ads.

The content is important — Comcast executives brought out NBC mainstay Tina Fey to talk about the shows she used to make for NBC, like 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, as well as a new show she’s producing for Peacock — but the main thing is the price, or lack thereof.

It’s literally the best part, per Peacock’s new site:

Screenshot/NBCUniversal

Which means, in the end, that Peacock isn’t just competing with services like Netflix, which doesn’t have ads — it is also competing with places that NBC’s content has been showing up for free, like YouTube and Facebook. (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media.)

If you want, you can also pay for Peacock: $5 a month will get you a “premium” version, with extra programming and other features — but it will still feature ads. And you can go ad-free for $10 a month. But its main emphasis will be serving up ads alongside videos to the widest possible audience.

That means Comcast will try to give away that “premium” version too: Comcast’s own video and broadband subscribers can get the $5 version for free, as can Cox’s cable TV subscribers; Comcast is trying to do deals with other pay TV providers, too.

Comcast thinks this is a good differentiator, but it doesn’t think it’s going to blow everyone else away: It is projecting to have a total of 35 million users by 2024; Disney, by contrast, thinks it will have 60 million to 90 million subscribers for its Disney+ service the same year. And Netflix already has 61 million US subscribers.

But you can see how Comcast got to this place: For starters, it still has an existing pay TV business to protect, so it doesn’t want to make something that encourages people who are paying to get its programming on conventional TV to ditch it for a free version.

Comcast is also losing access to Hulu, the place where NBCUniversal used to put its old TV shows (along with ads) because Disney took control of that service when it bought much of Fox last year.

And for several years, Comcast executives have been grousing about the money they’re not getting when they put their stuff on YouTube and Facebook. They have been telling anyone in earshot that they could make much more if they sold their own ads, for their own stuff, on their own service.

Now they get to try.

“Our work shows us that consumer demand is there. With all the pay-for-[subscription video] services that are proliferating together with traditional video, 80 percent of folks would be looking for something that has a reasonable amount of ads,” Comcast CFO Michael Cavanagh told investors last December, previewing the Peacock pitch. “We’re excited about what this can mean for advertisers.”

“Free” has certainly been an effective pitch on the internet. And while tens of millions of internet users are used to getting ad-free stuff from the likes of Netflix and Spotify, many more people are still used to seeing ads in at least some of their entertainment.

And Peacock will be able to show plenty of stuff that people have liked in the past: TV shows like Parks and Recreation and Friday Night Lights, and movies like Meet the Parents and the Fast & Furious series. As Netflix executives can tell you, running old TV shows and movies you’ve heard of is not a bad way to launch a new streaming service.

But Peacock may not have a flagship show or buzzy concept to show off to prospective viewers, especially at first. The Office, its most popular old show, won’t be on the service at launch — it will be on Netflix through the end of 2020. The Tokyo Olympics, which was a big part of Peacock’s pitch, won’t start until the end of July. It’s also unclear how much of that event Comcast will want to feature on Peacock instead of NBC and its cable networks, where they are likely to play for bigger audiences.

Which means Peacock may have to hope it can attract viewers with new, or sort of new, stuff.

Sources had told me that Comcast would also use its Peacock unveiling to tout an international news service created by NBC News and the news division of Sky, the satellite TV company Comcast bought in 2018, but that didn’t happen. I’ll try to figure out what happened to that delay, but it would certainly make sense for that service to feature prominently on Peacock.

And, interestingly, Comcast is giving Peacock viewers an early glimpse of both The Tonight Show, featuring Jimmy Fallon, and Late Night, featuring Seth Meyers. Those shows normally air at 11:35 pm and 12:35 am, respectively, but Peacocks’ “premium” viewers can now see them at 8 pm and 9 pm (all times Eastern).

That’s a very big deal for the TV business, because it is likely to upset the local affiliates and cable operators that pay big fees to NBC to air those shows before they show up anywhere else. Now Comcast is showing the same programming to their own customers first.

That seems like a puzzling fight for Comcast to pick, since The Tonight Show is not Game of Thrones: Even if you like to watch it, you probably don’t need to see it a few hours before anyone else. So it’s hard to see why Comcast would go stir up trouble over a move that won’t mean much to regular people.