“With 190 days to go to Tokyo, we can proudly say ‘let the games begin,' ” Olympics host Mike Tirico told the investors and journalists who had packed a studio at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters to hear about Peacock, before retiring to a cocktail party where he talked informally to guests about the network’s plans.
With the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics as a result of the coronavirus Tuesday — the International Olympic Committee and Japanese officials said they hoped to stage them by the summer of 2021 — whether Peacock should launch as planned on July 15 is suddenly in question, too.
“I think there’s a pretty massive effect to this on Peacock,” said Stephen Beck, the founder of management consultancy Cg42 and close observer of the streaming world. “This could lead to a real shift in terms of their strategy — and rightfully so. The Olympics is just an absolutely giant property to be able to connect to.”
Officially, NBC said it’s moving forward as planned. A spokeswoman declined to comment beyond that.
But analysts are questioning whether that is wise.
When details for Peacock were formalized last year, some realities quickly emerged: It was coming late to the game — launching after HBO Max in May and Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, which both launched last year. It didn’t have the mega-franchises that Disney had, such as Marvel and Pixar. It also didn’t come with hundreds of millions of devices, like Apple — its reach came in the form of the traditional cable boxes of its parent company Comcast.
The one thing it clearly had: Olympics content.
The plan was to build Peacock around the Olympics, not just with programming but in promotion: The Tokyo Games meant a captive audience of potential Peacock subscribers it could appeal to consistently for more than two weeks. Four years ago, the Rio Olympics were watched by more than 25 million people on most nights, and the opening ceremony topped 30 million viewers.
Only five telecasts across network television exceeded 25 million viewers in 2019, and four of them were NFL postseason games. The chance for NBC to tell viewers about the service, and send them directly into its arms, had been extremely appealing.
Or, at least, it was.
“I think this changes their promotion and distribution strategy,” said Dan Rayburn, a longtime streaming analyst. “Customer acquisition is often the biggest cost when you’re launching a service, and NBC had a big platform [with the Olympics] that meant they didn’t have to do that.”
The network, he and others say, could push the launch until September, when NBC has returning fall shows and the massively popular “Sunday Night Football.”
For non-Comcast and Cox subscribers, the service will offer a basic free ad-supported service, a $5 ad-supported premium service and a $10 premium ad-free service. Comcast and Cox subscribers will get $5 off each of the paid packages. A soft Peacock launch for some Comcast and Cox subscribers is also still being planned for next month.
But even that comes draped in questions — while many Americans are self-isolating and looking for entertainment options, one of the service’s biggest selling points was a chance to see “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers” in the evening, hours before they air. Yet both of those shows are running only small homespun monologues because of the coronavirus.
The company has not been explicit about which shows, both new and library, will be on the service at launch. Among the expectations is that “The Office,” the comedy hit that NBC decided not to renew on Netflix so it could offer the show on Peacock, will get a major push.
With Peacock, NBC is trying to keep pace with rivals, which have quickly ramped up subscribers — Netflix has more than 160 million worldwide. Yet it also is crafting the service so that it doesn’t hurt its traditional business of advertising and cable-service subscriptions, which explains both the incorporation of ads and the added costs for non-Comcast subscribers.
The company aims for 35 million Peacock subscribers by 2024. And while that’s certainly a long game, Wall Street is eagerly watching to see how many it can attract right out of the gate. Investors applauded Disney when the company exceeded 26 million Disney Plus subscribers in its first six weeks of existence.
The Olympics postponement could also pressure NBC executives to make a deal for football, which for the moment remains unaffected by the coronavirus. Football is NBC’s other ratings crown jewel — "Sunday Night Football” has by far been the most-watched program this past season, regularly pulling in more than 20 million viewers. Seven of the top 16 shows in 2019 were SNF broadcasts.
But the network does not yet have an NFL deal for Peacock, as the league looks to protect a host of other streaming partners. Promoting the service off games is a possibility, though NBC risks alienating football fans who will go to the service expecting live games.
Peacock could at least goose the subscriber numbers on the basis of its free service. “That’s a pretty easy sell to people,” said the Wall Street analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed, “and could help with some of the disappointment” from the postponed Olympics.
Peacock could face other challenges as a result of the coronavirus. Even as many people are staying home in search of entertainment options, Peacock will rely heavily on advertising, a sector that could take a hit with any virus-related downturn.
“I think even besides the Olympics,” Cg42’s Beck said, “Peacock may be in something of a rethink situation.”