Other than its pricing structure — you can watch for free! — NBCUniversal’s Peacock doesn’t radically depart from the template established by Netflix more than a decade ago. It’s mostly the same mix of new and old TV shows, movies, and unscripted programming, all available on demand and served up via endless rows of colorful tiles which have been algorithmically arranged to get viewers to stop and click. And yet, for all that’s familiar, Peacock does try to do at least one thing differently: It gives users who want it the option to watch like it’s 2009.
Click on the “channels” tab in the Peacock app and you’ll suddenly find yourself transported to a user interface that resembles the electronic program guides common on cable and satellite systems, as well as virtual cable providers such as YouTube TV or Philo. When I signed on to the channels section of the Peacock mobile app on Thursday morning, I instantly found myself watching the live feed of a U.K. football match (Manchester City vs. Bournemouth, if that means anything to you). Scrolling down took me from a Jason Sudekis movie parody on a channel devoted to SNL clips to a random episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians to the Bob Ross Channel (which, yes, is just old installments of The Joy of Painting). It can take me 10-15 minutes to settle on something I want to watch on Netflix; within 90 seconds of scrolling on Peacock, I had decided to keep the SNL Vault channel on for a bit while I read through some emails.
This one user’s completely random interaction with Peacock may not end up being representative of how most consumers discover content on the service (or even how I end up using it.) But giving folks the choice to do so is very much part of the platform’s design. “We made the conscious decision to build a product meant to tap into the multiple ways people watch television,” Peacock boss Matt Strauss told me late last month. Given Peacock’s connection to linear TV giant NBCUniversal, home to NBC, Telemundo, and multiple cable networks, execs at the service wanted to recreate the “lean-back” experience that dominated the first 60 years of TV.
They’re betting audiences are tired of having to find something to watch and sometimes would prefer to have their content curated for them. Industry vet Shini Reddy Wark, chief revenue officer for digital product placement firm Ryff, thinks streamers such as Peacock are on the right track with virtual channels, saying there is an “ease to it and stickiness” that on-demand offerings can’t match. “You love ’70s procedurals or spy dramas, you go to that channel and you can stay there [and] watch some content you know and some new things,” she says. And “when something ends, you don’t think about switching to another platform to see what you can find there. It feeds you what to watch next.”
This is why Peacock also has a “trending” section packed with news, sports, and pop-culture clips (plus promos for Peacock originals). Combined, having the channels and trending tabs “opens up the door to increasing frequency and getting people to come to us more often,” Strauss explains. “You’re not just there to watch a movie or catch up on a TV show. You’re also there because you might just want to get something that’s of shorter form.” Of course, this was also Jeffrey Katzenberg’s intent with Quibi, but Peacock has made its version of short-attention-span theater one of several ways to use the platform rather than the core of the service.
Peacock didn’t invent live channels, of course: The service may be the biggest streamer to try to tackle the choice-fatigue problem, but it is hardly the first. Pluto, Tubi, and Xumo have been offering virtual channels for some time now, prompting them to get gobbled up by big media conglomerates (ViacomCBS, Fox, and Peacock owner Comcast, respectively). Two other free streamers — the Roku Channel and Sinclair-owned STIRR — have also started offering live channels within the past few months. And while it’s still early days for Peacock channels — there are plans to nearly double the number of them in coming months — so far the new platform’s attempt to play in the space is pretty meh compared to those offered by the other guys.
Still, I think Strauss and his team are very much on the right path here. Netflix is undeniably the best streaming platform in the U.S. on multiple fronts: biggest collection of original content, most must-watch TV shows, best (and easiest to use) device, how long it takes to load and switch between titles. It does what it does better than anyone else — I will fight you if you disagree — and that’s caused many of its rivals to try to duplicate its success rather than do things Netflix doesn’t do well (or do at all). I think the way for new streamers to succeed is to find ways to stand out, whether by having a very specific focus (Disney+ and family entertainment) or bundling a cable package in with your VOD service (Hulu with Live TV). Peacock has two big points of differentiation: The basic version is free, and you can choose a more linear experience if you want.
It’s too soon to say whether channels will actually drive substantially more usage or engagement for Peacock, or whether it ends up being a novelty. But Strauss says data from Peacock’s preview launch this spring (when it was available only to Xfinity customers) gives him reason to be optimistic. Cord-cutting consumers who accessed the platform via Xfinity’s internet-only Flex service used the channels feature ten times more often than those who had a traditional cable package. “What that signals to me is that linear TV is not dead,” he says. “We’re finding that people like the serendipity of being able to come in and out of channels or just have it playing on in the background. That is something that has been missing from some other streaming services that we’ve embraced as part of ours.”
So, Is Peacock Must-Stream TV?
I’ve found it to be … solid. The user interface is right down the middle when compared to other major platforms: It doesn’t dazzle like Netflix but it also doesn’t make you want to throw your remote across the living room (hello, Amazon Prime Video). Downloading it to my phone and Apple TV was simple, and the sign-up painless.
The movie selection: As for the content, the big (pleasant) surprise was how robust the movie offering is, especially for folks like me who appreciate random underappreciated movies from the ’70s and ’80s. The 1981 Alan Alda/Carol Burnett rom-com The Four Seasons? It’s on Peacock. 1974’s newspaper classic The Front Page? It’s there, too. There is also a very nice assortment of major franchises from the Universal vaults, including lots of Hitchcock films; the Jurassic Park, Bourne, and Matrix franchises; and many Universal monster movies. Of course, there’s also much more junk than you’ll find on, say, HBO Max. The “Serious Cinema” section on Peacock includes WTF titles such as Autumn Stables, All Summer’s End, and a Burt Reynolds late-in-life dud called Hamlet & Hutch sitting next to The Phantom Thread. Maybe they meant to call it “You Cannot Be Serious Cinema”?
The television offerings: In terms of library TV shows, Peacock execs told me they wanted to find something for everyone, and I think they succeeded. Instead of just loading the service up with every bad Universal TV sitcom from the ’90s and beyond, Peacock plays to the studio’s historic strength with crime dramas: You can binge The Rockford Files, Columbo, and, of course, lots and lots of Dick Wolf shows (though, sadly, not every episode of Law & Order. One day!). Peacock also has shows from outside studios, and while it’s nice to see Everybody Loves Raymond sitting next to Frasier, the TV library isn’t particularly big overall or filled with titles that haven’t lived elsewhere for years. Why not spend the money and figure out a way to bring the NBC classic Homicide: Life on the Street to streaming as opposed to giving cash to ViacomCBS for Cheers? Yes, it is one of the ten biggest comedies ever produced for TV, but it can already be found on other services and it had a long run on Netflix.
Finally, I’ll admit to not having watched any of the handful of Peacock originals. To be honest, none so far seem all that appealing. The company’s development execs say they intentionally leaned on well-known IP with their early efforts, which is why there’s an adaptation of Brave New World and reboots of Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster in the works. I watched both when I was younger, but I’m not sure the world needed to see them again. But from a business standpoint, I think there’s some logic to playing it safe as Peacock builds a base of active users, saving its Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Handmaid’s Tale moment for when the platform is more established. Upcoming comedies from Tina Fey and Mike Schur will hopefully fill the quality niche.
The Time Capsule: Coco’s Peacock
Of all the old NBC shows not on Peacock, the one I’m most bummed is missing: the Conan O’Brien version of Late Night. I’d love to see David Letterman’s old shows, too, but Conan-era Late Night is a touchstone for Gen X and millennials alike, and it’s a shame that complete episodes are only available via Conan’s own streaming platform. HBO Max would also be a logical home for Late Night, but if Conan, Andy, and Max were on Peacock, it would give the streamer a good excuse to use one of Conan’s best bits in promos: Polly the NBC Peacock. Polly is a shameless shill for all things NBC, and I’m sure he’d have plenty of good things to say about the new streamer. For now, we’ll have to make due with clips on YouTube, like this one from 2000.