Peacock Fails To Medal

(Image credit: NBCUniversal)

My phone has been blowing up all week with texts from friends who don’t work in the video industry demanding to know “WTF is up with Peacock?”

Alan Wolk

(Image credit: Alan Wolk)

For those of you living under rocks, that question is in reference to the Olympics and the byzantine system that NBCUniversal has in place to determine where different pieces of Olympic-related programming reside.

Some are live on NBC, some are on free Peacock, and more are behind the Great Paywall on subscription Peacock, an entity it seems many people had no idea even existed.

A quick trip back in time will reveal how this came to be.

NBCU was all set to roll out Peacock as a subscription app during the 2020 Olympics. They’d make it clear to fans that Peacock was the best way to watch the games, and they’d showcase The Office and all the new streaming-only series that were available for just five or 10 dollars a month.

But to paraphrase the great Mike Tyson, everyone’s got a plan until you get punched in the face.

And COVID was definitely a punch in the face.

NBCU’s response seemed very clever at the time. Without much in the way of new original programming and no Olympics, they realized that few people were going to sign up to pay cash money for reruns of The Office. So they offered the service for free in exchange for an email address.

All well and good, only it established Peacock as a FAST in consumers’ minds, NBC’s version of ViacomCBS' Pluto TV.

As was often noted at the time, the sign-up process for free Peacock made no mention whatsoever of the existence of a subscription version. This meant that most people outside of the industry had no idea that Peacock was designed to be a subscription app. (Fans of English Premier League Football, which seems to be the main reason someone might want to subscribe to Costs Money Peacock, were the only ones who seem to have gotten the message.)

And here, as they say, their problems began.

Because when the Olympics started up this summer, there were a whole lot of people who thought they had a Peacock subscription only to find out that there was in fact a subscription version and that they actually needed to, you know, pay for it, in order to watch many of the more popular Olympic events. 

This was not a positive development in that all those people were banking on using their free Peacock subscription to give them access to All Things Olympics.

More than that though, it was tough to figure out what was on where and did you actually care enough to pay five dollars for the thing you needed to pay five dollars to watch or was it just easier to watch the swimming and gymnastics events that NBCU had already picked?

(Based solely on my friends, the answer was generally a resounding “no!”)

So what happened?

NBCU, which is admittedly new to the business of user experience (though its parent company, Comcast, is not) seems to have forgotten how important being up front with your customers is.

That, and I get a sense they were hoping that five dollars was a small enough amount of money that people wouldn’t get hung up on it, so why scare them off by talking about it?

What they found out though is that regardless of price point, people do in fact care about their subscriptions and don’t like getting taken by surprise by hidden charges. Had NBCU emailed all those free subscribers and clearly laid out the benefits of getting a Peacock subscription with, say, one of those feature charts with the checkmarks, to show what a viewer would and would not have access to via the various options, that would have made a world of difference.

It’s too bad too, because Peacock should have been in a good position to benefit from the Olympics.

Had NBCU played their cards right, they could have not only sold viewers on subscribing to Peacock to watch the Olympics, but sold them on sticking around after. Something as basic as a “first month free, cancel any time” deal would likely have worked given the interest in the Olympics and the lack of much else going on this summer.

NBCU can afford it, too--they recently reported a decent-sized gain in profits and revenue for Q2 2021, with profits up 12.5% year over year and revenue up 39.2% for the same period.

What’s more, NBCU is about to launch Peacock in Europe, with Sky’s 20 million customers getting the app for free.

What this points out though, is the need for all of the various streaming services to try and do better about explaining their value proposition to potential customers. While I get that the pandemic is making this hard (production looks to be shutting down again or at least getting more difficult thanks to the Delta variant), there’s real value to communicating pricing and content clearly.

Especially in a crowded market when your rivals are being anything but transparent.

To wit, as a general complaint against subscription apps, the notion of having to pay a subscription fee while still getting ads is somewhat confusing, as is the idea that even though you’ve just paid for an ad-free version, there are some shows that still require you to watch ads.

Stumbling upon that on your own (versus hearing about it upfront) just seems sleazy, like the app was trying to pull a fast one on you and hoped you wouldn’t notice.

It’s not too late for NBCU. A quick round of “we realize there’s a whole lot of confusion around the Olympics (e.g. “we monitor Twitter too”) and so we wanted to clear it up” type communication would do a lot to change hearts and minds.

Which, after all, is really what the “streaming wars” are all about.

Alan Wolk

Alan Wolk is the co-founder and lead analyst for media consultancy TV[R]EV