Scarce As A Peacock?

Sure.  But it’s gonna cost ya.

Not as much as it cost the ones who are hoping to drag millions of fans, particularly those that support the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs beyond their respective coverage areas, kicking and screaming into the streaming wars.  As the NEW YORK TIMES’ John Koblin reported, there’s arguably even more at stake for the entity that will be broadcastin–er, streaming–their Super Wild Card round NFL playoff game that will be for the combatants:

On Saturday night, NBCUniversal will make media history. For the first time, a National Football League playoff game…will appear exclusively on a streaming service.

And at NBCUniversal’s offices in New York and Los Angeles, executives are all too aware of the high stakes for the company and particularly its streaming service, Peacock.

“There’s a lot riding on this game,” Kelly Campbell, Peacock’s president, said in an interview. “We feel that pressure.”

The pressure is coming from many fronts. There’s a technical challenge: First-round N.F.L. playoff games regularly draw audiences of nearly 30 million people. Can Peacock, a service that has a much smaller subscriber base than rivals like Netflix, Disney+ and Max, handle a crushing traffic surge without suffering an embarrassing technological snafu?

There’s also a question of whether it will upset viewers: For decades, playoff games have been free to watch on network television. Though the game will air free on local television in the Kansas City and Miami markets, the only way for anyone else to watch it is to hand over $6, the monthly price for Peacock’s cheapest pricing tier.

And then there is the vital business issue: NBCUniversal executives paid more than $100 million for the game, and they’re doing it to get more people to check out Peacock. Will they be able to keep them subscribing, month after month, to a streaming service that lost nearly $3 billion last year? New subscribers could cancel right after the game.

Certainly with this kind of investment, we would like to have a lot of people sign up and sample us,” said Mark Lazarus, the chairman of the NBCUniversal media group. “And then we’d like to get them to use the product a lot, and for a long time.”

Well, yes, as a Dolphins fan who was frustrated that my team wound up in this window, rather than hosting a game in 72 degree Miami on a Sunday afternoon against #7 seed Pittsburgh had they been able to win their division-deciding home game against Buffalo last Sunday night–watched by approximately 17.5 million people on good old-fashioned NBC–I’ve got my own set of hopes and wishes.

But I’ve already got access to Peacock (thanks, roomie) so I’m not someone that those NBC executives have to worry about.  But for those they hope will somehow become subscribers, and stick around long enough to be monetized by advertisers, that’s a far bigger worry.

Lazarus is buoyant and upbeat, at least publically.  He maintains that the “dress rehearsal” that took place on December 23rd, when that Buffalo team kept their hopes for that eventual division title alive with a surprisingly close game with the Los Angeles Chargers, quelled many internal fears of a catacylsmic event.  As he told Koblin:

Mr. Lazarus said he had sat by his phone during the Bills-Chargers game hoping it wouldn’t ring, because that would signal a problem. It never rang. The game peaked with 5.7 million concurrent devices using Peacock, the company said, the most ever for the service. 

According to a press release issued by NBC Sports, that translated to approximately 7.3 million viewers.  For Peacock, that’s a win–it indeed did lead all measured entities on an otherwise rerun and holiday special-filled Saturday night.

But the following Saturday night, with a Lions-Cowboys game with similar playoff implications airing on a much broader group of platforms, the NFL drew 26.6M viewers across the ESPN family of networks.

And Peacock, as of the beginning of this month, is only available in 30 million HHs.  So, in other words, that “dress rehearsal”, while record-setting for Peacock, only attracted less than one-fifth of all of their current subscribers.

So it’s gonna take a LOT of sign-ups, far more than what Koblin described as the “hundreds of thousands that signed up during the 10 minute window right before and after kickoff” of the Bills-Chargers game.  And despite best efforts from media outlets doing everything possible to educate people of what to do and how to sign up in advance, we all know that your uncle or aunt who might be using a Jitterbug cell phone is likely not paying attention, and  is likely gonna explode in a panic that will put the REAL capacity of Peacock to the test.

And as for them sticking around as sustaining subscribers after the game?  Well, Peacock is taking what they think is their best shot by looking to pivot game viewers algorithmically to their newest original, the “origins series” based on Seth MacFarlane’s TED movie franchise about a potty-mouthed stuffed bear who just happens to sound exactly like FAMILY GUY’s Peter Griffin.  And if that kind of football-MacFarlane alliance sounds familiar, you’re not wrong:  FAMILY GUY debuted as the lead-out to Super Bowl XXXIII exactly a quarter-century ago, with 22.1 million viewers watching the launch of a franchise that has outlived the association of both the production company and MacFarlane himself from FOX.  But bear in mind: that inflated figure represented a smidge more than a fourth of the 83.7 million that watched the Super Bowl lead-in.

And if you do happen to be a Peacock subscriber in advance of the last-minute rush, you’ll note that TED actually dropped yesterday–the entire first season no less–on the platform.  So even the possible allure of a show that let’s just say is an acquired taste–and I’m dubious it’s a taste that many Peacock newbies possess–that might have kept folks around a while longer was compromised by a strategy that put their existing core subscriber base front and center.

And that base, while Peacock would like to spin the belief is growing, is simply not at a truly competitive level.  Koblin notes exactly the kind of gap that exists between the haves and have-nots:

The streaming service picked up 10 million subscribers last year, and it features the back library of shows like “The Office” and “Law & Order: SVU,” as well as new episodes of Bravo shows like the “Housewives” franchise and “Vanderpump Rules.”

Peacock has also seen improved engagement. In November, the service accounted for 1.3 percent of television viewing time in the United States, more than Max, Paramount+ and Apple TV+, according to Nielsen. (Giants like YouTube and Netflix dwarfed everyone — YouTube had 9 percent of viewing time, and Netflix stood at 7.4 percent.)

And the ever-upbeat Campbell offers still further cheerleader-like encouragement:

And even if many in the media industry are skeptical, Ms. Campbell said she was confident that this would not be Peacock’s last chance to try to persuade would-be subscribers to sign up. After all, she said, the Summer Olympics, which will be broadcast on NBC and stream on Peacock, is right around the corner.

The pandemic-delayed 2021 Summer Olympics did indeed produce some immediate impact, as AdExchanger’s Tony Rifilato reported at the time:

Comcast-owned NBCUniversal’s ad-supported streaming service Peacock hit 54 million subscribers and more than 20 million monthly active users in the second quarter of 2021.  During the company’s Q2 earnings call Thursday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said the number of subscribers grew 50% over 90 days, driven in large part by the Olympics, the release of “The Boss Baby 2” and the debut of “Dr. Death.”

So if we are to take Mr. Roberts’ numbers at face value, does that mean that in the ensuing 2 1/2 years, amidst growing competition and significant price increases, Peacock actually LOST approxmiately 44 per cent of those subscribers?

Will the NFL be completely thrilled in the short run by what will almost certainly be the least-viewed playoff game in recent memory, not to mention the lingering effect of bitterness from fans and even players who have taken to social media to express their frustrations leading up to tomorrow night?

And will Roberts be willing to sign off on another nine-figure gambit, now without sports fanatic Jeff Shell encouraging him to do so, for a game that doesn’t deliver in the long term–for a service that has already proven its ability to retain subscribers is not stellar?

If you’re a football fan, those questions are probably secondary to those such as can the injury-riddled Dolphins suck it up in the frigid Kansas City night air, or can Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes discover a receiver as reliable as the one he used to have–Tyreek Hill–who now stars for the Fins.

But if you follow media, or are an investor in Comcast or other streaming media-centric companies, those questions will probably have more enduring implications than the final score.

So good luck to those who are being seen as taking blood money to deny millions of people what they have seen as their God-given right to watch professional playoff football as God intended it to be viewed–on broadcast TV.

And good luck to the company that put enough on the table to force the issue, and who would like to believe that there’s a world where this Peacock soars high enough to justify all of this.

I sure hope you make better bets on the game’s stats as opposed to the game’s value.

And make more fans happier than they seem to be going in.

Until next time…

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