Reading the shockingly respectful obituaries these past couple of days about Nikki Finke, my immensely controversial former boss, got me thinking about one thing (among, admittedly quite a lot of other things): what would Nikki Finke have written about NBCUniversal head Jeff Shell’s full-throated celebration of Peacock’s many putative recent achievements?
Nikki hadn’t written much about anyone for awhile, thanks to a lingering unspecified illness that ultimately killed her at a too-young 68. And in truth, she hadn’t been anything like Peak Finke for a quite a while, after flouncing out of Deadline, the influential publication she founded, a decade ago, then failing to successfully launch two successors.
But her departure from this mortal coil is a reminder of the need for at least an ounce of the vinegar (if not the acidic bile) that she doused on self-congratulatory Hollywood execs and flacks during her late-aughts/early-teens reign of terror, taunting and truthtelling.
Thankfully, one upside of that reign is that it forced the overly insular and sleepy trade publications that dominated Hollywood coverage for decades to get better and smarter, covering not just box office returns and spoon-fed casting announcement, but also digging more into Hollywood’s business personalities and decision-makers.
For all of Finke’s many abusive personal and journalistic downsides, she ushered in a new era of trade coverage that has brought much-needed perspective, balance, and, yes, second-guessing to a high-profile sector that contributes a hefty chunk of both the nation’s GDP and its time spent.
So what would Nikki have written after Shell shouted Peacock praises from the rooftops (technically, from a friendly seat on the set of NBCU’s own business-news site, CNBC)?
To his credit, CNBC’s David Faber noted not only that he was interviewing his “boss’ boss’ boss’ boss,” but that the company’s stock had been downgraded that day by an analyst (Wells Fargo’s Steven Cahall downgraded or reduced price targets for much of Hollywood that day).
Shell quickly pivoted beyond Faber’s question to say Peacock now has over 15 million paying subscribers, up 2 million in just one quarter! Big news! The service also has 30 million “active accounts” watching … something on Peacock, but not paying. For the year, Peacock subscription rolls are up a whopping 70%, Shell enthused. He attributed all that massive progress to a corporate decision not to compete against the ad-free SVOD giants Netflix and Disney Plus.
“… We decided to enter in a different way,” Shell said. “We entered as kind of a broad, dual-revenue-stream model, which we thought was the more attractive business opportunity, but it happened to fit really well with our company. That’s what we do in our regular business. That’s where our content is. That’s where our advertising strength is. So we launched with all that and we are doing really, really well in that model.”
I’m not clear whether Nikki, had she stayed in the game, would have evolved her understanding of Hollywood business to recognize the importance of streaming. She made her name, in part, writing deeply about the weekly sturm und drang around movie box office numbers.
As the former manager of her Twitter feed and something of a tech whisperer/translator for Deadline for about four years, I can attest to Nikki’s many blind spots regarding technology and Hollywood. That in part reflected the blind spots of her high-level sources, who for years stubbornly continued not to know what they didn’t know.
But if Nikki had progressed, here’s what I think she might write: Any service with Universal Studios, NBC Entertainment/News/Sports, the Bravo networks, and its own productions, and had managed to attract only 15 million paying customers after two and a half years was doing a really crummy job. She also might have used stronger language.
Disney Plus has around 150 million subscribers since launching six months before Peacock. Netflix has 220 million. Both had quarters where they added more paying customers than Peacock has ever had. Even undersized Paramount Global has done a far better job in about the same period, adding some 43 million to Paramount Plus, and 64 million across all of its services.
To be sure, Peacock launched with a few handicaps. It counted on the Tokyo Olympics opening a few weeks after it launched to send signups skyward. When the Games were postponed a year, there wasn’t much else to watch on Peacock. Nearly everything else was grounded by pandemic production problems or previous licensing deals.
Some of that has fixed itself, even if audiences haven’t yet noticed. As Nikki might write, FINALLY!
NBCU stopped being an “arms dealer,” licensing its best stuff to competitors. It finally clawed back from Hulu next-day re-runs of shows such as Saturday Night Live. Peacock also pulled from Hulu thousands of hours of Bravo shows such as the Real Housewives franchise. NBCU also shipped durable day-time soap Days of Our Lives to streaming after five decades on broadcast.
On the movie side, NBCU continues to experiment with theatrical release windows, going day-and-date with high-profile smaller projects such as the next (allegedly last) Michael Myers gorefest, Halloween Ends. Even bigger films such as the latest Jurassic Park and Minions installments hit Peacock within a couple of weeks, often wrapped in a premium VOD offering. Shell said NBCU’s movie strategy is “very strong!”
On the premium sports side, both the Summer and Winter Olympics Games have been held since launch, featuring thousands of hours of competitions available only on Peacock. That helped signups for a while. The company also signed a pricey exclusive rights deal with the English Premier League, and expensive new deals with the NFL and Big 10 Conference that will put the other game of football on Peacock.
So everything should be peachy. Except, it’s not really (again, Nikki might/absolutely would use harsher language). Not only is absolute growth anemic compared to competitors, other metrics remain problematic.
Nikki, like Wall Street analysts and investors, would have snorted when Faber quoted a Bank of America analyst note: “Given the small amount of net (subscriber) adds and lack of buzz around hit shows, we worry — this is the BofA analysts — that Peacock may struggle to hit engagement figures of 10 hours a month, that is per consumer. And they say NBC (had) the greatest potential risk of the companies that they follow in that space.”
When you’re an ad-supported entertainment service, it’s bad when people don’t watch your shows for long. As LightShed Partners regularly points out, all the streaming services, but especially the ad-supported ones, need to opt for a lot of engagement, so they can sell more ads and charge more for the privilege.
Shell brushed past that to point out that Peacock is doing quite well in another closely watched metric: average revenue per user, at least from the paying customers.
“We’re doing an ARPU of close to $10 (per month) on our paid subs, which is very healthy,” Shell said, and generating $2 billion in revenue from advertising. That ARPU number indeed is pretty good for the few paying customers. It’s way better, for instance, than the nickels per month that Disney Plus and Netflix extract from many Indian customers. But also, Peacock has lost $2.5 billion in EBITDA since launch. Better get some more high-paying customers soon.
It’s possible that Peacock will be one fit, fine-looking bird by, say, 2024, when everyone in streaming is promising to start making more money than they spend.
More likely, Nikki might suggest, even as NBCU’s broadcast and cable networks enter free-fall in the next couple of years, Peacock still won’t be anywhere near the size of its competition. And its competitors are all adding their own ad-supported tiers, so they’ll nab a piece of that business too.
Many analysts think NBCU needs to get bigger by making a large acquisition. But Shell insisted Comcast can stand pat, given its existing holdings, and the way they’re all synergizing so strategically.
“Sure, if you can make acquisitions for the right strategy and the right price — we’ve been a company that has always made acquisitions as part of our business,” Shell said. But, “…for the people who say we need to do something, we don’t need to do anything.”
To which, I’ll have one thing to say when Comcast takes cash from selling its Hulu stake, and buys Paramount and/or Warner Bros. Discovery to better compete with the far bigger Disney, Netflix, Amazon and Apple.
That near-inevitable deal will give me a chance to do one last homage to the influential, destructive, transformative, extraordinary, awful Nikki Finke, who once somewhat accidentally gave me a job, and say: TOLDJA!
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David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.