Welcome to the first edition of Buffering, the Vulture newsletter devoted to streaming TV. The goal of this weekly enterprise is to keep track of the rapidly evolving business of making and distributing video content, as streaming replaces old-fashioned linear television. You could think of this as a field guide to the streaming wars, though to be clear: I hate the phrase “streaming wars,” because I don’t think what’s going on is a zero-sum game (despite Netflix’s very real desire to become far and away the most important power in entertainment). What’s happening now is more akin to a revolution, with lots of combatants battling for territory and position. Buffering will focus on how players large and small are approaching this new world of TV, bringing you an inside look at the week’s big stories, interviews with industry players, and analysis of what it all might mean.
Now let’s get started with some breaking news…
The Big Story: NBC Unveils Peacock
Peacock has landed — and it’s pretty much what most TV-industry insiders thought it would be. Comcast-owned NBCUniversal presented Thursday the details of its long-anticipated streaming play to investors and the media at the famed SNL Studio 8H. More specifics below, there aren’t any huge shocks: It’ll roll out first to Comcast cable and internet subscribers (on April 15) and then go national around the time of the Olympics (July 15). And there’ll be multiple price points and tiers (it’s a bit confusing), plus lots of content from various arms of the NBCU empire, from news to sports to Law & Order.
The closest thing to a paradigm shift: NBC’s two big late-night shows will now premiere first on Peacock, hours before airing on NBC (more on that later).
The details: In terms of price and access, Peacock is taking a multi-feathered approach. The options are:
• The basic, ad-supported service — called Peacock Free — will have more than 7,500 hours of programming, including full seasons of vintage shows, lots of news and sports (including the Olympics, curated live channels devoted to things like old SNL eps and family film; and Spanish-language programs. There’ll be some next-day reruns of NBC shows (but only first-year series) and select eps of Peacock Originals like the new Saved by the Bell follow-up. Anyone with internet can get it for free.
• The next level of Peacock — Peacock Premium — will be the full service. It’ll have everything the free version does, but it’ll also add in next-day reruns of almost all NBC broadcast series (similar to Hulu), early access to the late-night shows (more on that later), and a lot more sports, including Premier League Soccer. Premium will stream about 15,000 hours of content. The cost: If you’ve got Comcast or Cox cable bundles, it’s free (with ads). If you don’t, it’s $5 per month, and still with ads. NBCU and Comcast will be talking to other cable and satellite companies about offering Peacock Premium to bundled customers, so it’s possible that by July, many more people will have access. As it stands now, Peacock Premium will be in 24 million homes at launch.
• The final Peacock tier is still called Peacock Premium, but it’s completely ad-free — and it will run you $9.95 per month (seemingly even if you’re already a Comcast/Cox subscriber).
Dick Wolf fans, rejoice (sort of): As for content, much of what Peacock will offer had been telegraphed months ahead of time. For example, there will be lots of Dick Wolf shows, though as of this afternoon, not the full Wolf: Peacock says all the major Wolf Films shows from the Law & Orderand Chicago franchises will be represented on the service, but for now, that means full libraries of SVU and the three Chicago shows and “many episodes” from the original series and Criminal Intent — none of it exclusive.
Olympic play: The opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics will also air live on Peacock, though that’s not a massive coup since Japan is 14 hours ahead of New York, so NBC was always going to offer tape-delayed coverage in primetime. Still, expect a lot of Olympics on Peacock, along with several streams of news programming from both NBC News and Sky News (now owned by Comcast).
Comedies galore: The streamer also announced a new Tina Fey–produced comedy about a girl group (Girls5Eva) and some new comedies from Comcast-owned Sky (including the David Schwimmer–led Intelligence). It also snagged rerun plays of Two and a Half Men and The George Lopez Show, as well as Paramount Network’s hit drama Yellowstone. And, of course, there will be reruns of The Office … in 2021.
Late night in primetime: Most unexpected from today’s announcement is the late-night news. Starting in July, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers will stream first on Peacock at 8 and 9 p.m. EDT respectively each weeknight. That means the NBC broadcast network will essentially airing a rerun of both shows three-and-a-half hours later.
While NBC execs aren’t talking (yet) about the thinking behind the move, having Fallon and Meyers stream before they air on broadcast TV was presumably not something the company did without some debate. That’s because NBC’s affiliated TV stations, which pay substantial fees for the rights to NBC shows, will likely not love the idea of two important pieces of nightly programming being made available to streaming audiences first. This could be one reason why Peacock says its so-called “late night early” feature will only be available as part of Peacock Premium. Fallon and Meyers’s shows will not stream early on the free version of Peacock, which will contain ads and be available to all consumers.
A rival network exec who had not heard about the move until I informed him about it on Tuesday (before NBC confirmed the news) initially expressed surprise. “Whoa,” he said. “That’s … wow.” But despite being shocked at the news, the exec also said he didn’t think it would change the status quo in the late-night ratings race. “The numbers are gonna be the same,” he said, noting that it’s more likely the Peacock streaming strategy will bring new eyeballs to the two shows rather than steal them from folks who currently watch on broadcast or cable. I wrote more about Peacock’s late-night strategy over at Vulture.
The bottom line: I’ll have more thoughts on Peacock next week, once I’ve had a chance to see the full presentation to investors and digest the news. But for now, there’s no reason not to think Peacock has a good shot at succeeding at the game Comcast wants to play. It has made it clear that it’s not looking to go head-to-head with Netflix or Disney+ or WarnerMedia’s new HBOMax. It wants to create a service that helps sell more advertising and find new eyeballs to replace the ones its linear networks are losing.
Is the Peacock multi-tiered approach a bit confusing? Yes. And $10 per month for the ad-free version is a lot, given what Disney is charging for a much richer offering ($7 per month.) The Peacock name is also questionable: This is basically a supersize version of NBC, so why not lean into that much better-known brand? And the behind-the-scenes drama at Peacock, with execs such as Bonnie Hammer and George Cheeks coming and going, suggests that maybe there’s been turbulence inside Comcast and NBCU over the direction of Peacock.
But NBC and NBCU are well-run companies. Comcast has a huge national footprint, and its X1/Xfinity platforms are best in class in terms of cable offerings, suggesting Peacock’s tech should be solid. There’s nothing announced here that’s going to keep Netflix execs up at night, but for now, Peacock seems like a solid first step into the streaming future for NBC.
Awards Buzz: Netflix’s Oscar Bonanza
Netflix snagged more Oscar nominations this year (24) than any other film studio, a fact which will result in dozens more stories being written about the Film Industry wrestling with what the streaming giant is doing to the movie business. I’m personally a believer that Hollywood’s obsession with awards season (film and TV) borders on the unhealthy. But forget about the big picture: Short-term, this is a massive marketing win for the streamer and its nascent film division.
There’s obviously the halo that comes from all the headlines about Netflix “dominating” the nomination tally and “beating” established rivals such as Disney and Sony. The total nom count will also surely help Netflix convince more top filmmakers and talent to take the plunge and sign up to make movies with Netflix. But the less obvious upside for the streamer may be in how the Academy spread its love around. Yes, the big Scorsese blockbuster everyone watched over the holidays got a massive ten noms, second only to Joker. But Netflix also got noms for its little indie darling (Marriage Story); one of its international titles, The Two Popes; animated titles like the family-friendly holiday feature Klaus (which beat out Frozen 2) and the more daring (and adult) I Lost My Body; two feature documentaries (American Factory and The Edge of Democracy); and one doc short (Life Overtakes Me).
Netflix execs love to talk about how they want all their shows to be somebody’s favorite show, even if they don’t always reach a wide audience. The breadth of Netflix’s Oscar-nominated roster shows how that strategy can pay off on the movie side, too: The company is making movies for all of its audience, not just the biggest demos. Netflix Film is following the lead of the company’s TV division, training viewers to always expect something new and different to watch when they’re in the mood for a movie.
An intriguing question for the long-term: If the pace continues, does Netflix’s roster of new and library titles become big and diverse enough to justify its own separate subscription tier? There’s literally zero evidence the company is considering splitting up film and TV, but at some point, it might prove tempting for Netflix to keep its base price (relatively) low by putting brand new movies in a more expensive tier of the service.
Quibi: The Next Small Thing?
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) isn’t a huge deal for most established streaming platforms, but the presence of thousands of news-hungry journalists does make it a good place for up-and-coming companies to hype themselves. (I remember being part of the relatively tiny audience that watched Netflix boss Ted Sarandos tease the premiere of the upcoming original House of Cards back at CES 2013). Last week, the mobile-centric short-form streamer Quibi was the one making noise at CES, with founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Meg Whitman delivering a splashy hourlong keynote presentation. It felt very much like an Apple event, with various Quibi staffers and corporate partners (like T-Mobile and Pepsi) stopping by to reaffirm how much they love the idea of Quibi.
Whitman and Katzenberg certainly offered up a lot of information about Quibi, though almost all of it was stuff we already knew:
• The service rolls out April 6. It costs $5 per month, but T-Mobile users will get it for free.
• There’ll be nearly 200 “micro-shows” during the first year, and a bunch of famous faces and brands have signed on to make programming for the service. (Only one really matters: Chrissy’s Court.)
• The company’s big piece of tech pizzaz is the ability for users to seamlessly switch between portrait and landscape mode when watching a show. Quibi officially announced said tech will be called “Turnstyle.”
It all seems … fine. There are lots of smart people at Quibi, its talent roster is impressive, and there’s no denying the mobile-video market is huge. And not to get too inside baseball, but Quibi’s media-communications game is on point: Katzenberg and Whitman have made themselves available to dozens of media outlets (including Vulture), patiently and passionately explaining the details of the service and why they think people who don’t use T-Mobile will be willing to pay for it. And the well-orchestrated drip-drip-drip of show and talent announcements meant Quibi was constantly making headlines for much of the second half of 2019, at least in the showbiz trades and outlets that cover entertainment.
But as good as Quibi has been at answering the what and how of its offering, “Why Quibi” remains largely unexplained, even after last week. It’s hard to argue mobile users don’t already have a ton of free, high-quality programming to stream on their devices, particularly if you include podcasts and music streaming. Asking folks to spend $60 per year — and still have to watch ads! — seems like a stretch. And Quibi’s early marketing efforts haven’t exactly been impressive. The first big image spot describing the service for CES audiences was, quite frankly, clichéd and boring, even with the presence of Reese Witherspoon. Another video detailing how the service works and what it is was much more entertaining, but it’s not going to get many folks to smash the subscribe button.
Will it work? It’s early, of course, and Quibi no doubt has much more ambitious marketing plans in the works. The partnership with T-Mobile ensures Quibi will have millions of subscribers at launch, even if they’re not paying for it. And given how just five years ago, it wasn’t even clear if streaming video networks were really going to be immediately successful, it would be foolish to render any verdict on Quibi’s fate just yet. That said, Katzenberg and Whitman really ought to consider giving Chrissy Teigen more than one show.
What Else Is Happening?
Amazon Isn’t Sweating It
Amazon spent its time at the semi-annual TV Critics Association press tour Tuesday touting a ton of new developments, including overall deals with director Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment; a series adaptation of the Jack Reacher book series; and the casting of Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Richard Madden (Bodyguard) in the Russo Brothers’long-in-the-works action series Citadel.
But despite the flurry of announcements, Amazon execs said the streamer isn’t trying to one-up rival Netflix in the volume game, according to Mike Schneider’s Variety recap of their session. “We’ll never say no to a great idea, [but] there’s no minimum and there’s no maximum,” Amazon Studios TV co-chief Albert Cheng told reporters. “In general we know we don’t have to fill it up with volume. That gives us the ability to focus creatively.”
Cheng’s boss, Amazon Studios chief Jen Salke, also made it clear she’s not obsessed with one-upping the competition, given that Prime Video is bundled with a slew of other Amazon services (free delivery, music, etc.) rather than a standalone service “We do have a very different model … and we really try not to pay attention to the competition,” Salke said.
Amazon Prime Video’s most-watched shows of 2019: When Netflix issued a year-end tally of its most popular titles, it did so very loudly and generated a bunch of media coverage. Amazon also put out a list ranking its most-streamed Prime Original series … and as far as I can tell, nobody in the media really noticed. Per Amazon, awards-season fave The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was the platform’s most-watched original, beating out action-adventure series The Boys (No. 2) and that other awards magnet, Fleabag(No. 3). The rest of the top ten, in order: Bosch, Good Omens, Hanna, Goliath, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Carnival Row, and the anthology series Modern Love.
Amazon doesn’t cite any specific data or exactly how it measures popularity, nor does it allow its claims to be verified by independent third parties, so these aren’t anything at all like Nielsen ratings. But it’s at least interesting that Amazon is willing to admit to the world that the very heavily advertised and very costly Jack Ryan series was at least somewhat less popular than … Bosch. Or the now-canceled Goliath. (Update: After this newsletter was sent out, an Amazon rep emailed to say that while the published list did represent the streamer’s top 10 originals, those shows “were not actually ranked in order,” even though the list published by Amazon put numbers in front of each title.)
A good week for Apple TV+
There were a lot of snarky takes written about the streamer and its first batch of programs when it launched in November, but recent weeks have seen that bad buzz start to turn around. The Morning Show snagged three Golden Globe nominations (though no wins) and three SAG noms (results Sunday), while the Critics Choice Awards last week wisely honored Billy Crudup for his phenomenal performance in the show. It’s also signed some significant talent deals, including recruiting former HBO boss Richard Plepler to make shows for the service, and landing awards magnet Patricia Arquette to appear in its upcoming Ben Stiller–produced thriller Severance. And tomorrow, Apple debuts its first anthology series, Little America, whose brain trust includes Alan Yang and Kumail Nanjiani. It’s been getting ecstatic reviews so far.
But Apple is still experiencing some turbulence, particularly with its film unit: Last Friday, Oprah Winfrey pulled her name from an upcoming Sundance documentary which explores assault allegations against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, a decision which also meant the doc won’t run on Apple TV+. That news follows the company’s last-minute decision to delay the planned release of the Samuel L. Jackson–led movie The Banker, which was to have been the streamer’s first big feature release. (It’s now back on track and set for a March premiere.) But on the TV front, at least, Apple’s momentum is headed in the right direction.
Fun With Numbers
That’s how many scripted television shows premiered on American broadcast and cable networks and streaming platforms, per the research department of Disney-owned FX Networks. It’s a modest increase of 7 percent over a similar tally done at the end of 2018, but a stunning 61 percent jump from just five years earlier, when FX estimated 2014’s scripted tally at a now-quaint 328 shows. As Vulture reported at the time, in 2014, the total number of scripted originals on all streaming platforms (Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu) was just 24. Netflix alone now debuts that many originals every month or two.
The Time Capsule
With today’s big Peacock unveiling, it seemed a good time to look back to another time NBC announced a big bet on new technology and the internet: the December 1995 news conference confirming the creation of what was initially called MSNBC Cable, a new partnership between the network and Microsoft. My former Variety colleague John Dempsey reported from 30 Rock on “a presentation chock-a-block with high-tech hype, pomp and circumstance,” detailing how execs Jack Welch and Bob Wright were convinced the new partnership with Microsoft would redefine TV news forever and turn NBC into a serious rival to CNN. Take a look at how MSNBC sold itself to viewers the day it launched back in 1996.
“#Oscars will be one GIANT ad for @netflix yet the studio with the most nominations can’t even buy ads to support it since Disney has blocked Netflix from advertising on @ABCNetwork.”
—LightShed partners analyst Rich Greenfield on Twitter, noting the irony of Netflix’s big Oscars haul.