Peacock Now Has 17 Million Subscribers

Peacock’s Saved by the Bell. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: Peacock

Peacock owner Comcast was pretty quiet about the streamer’s performance during the second half of 2021. But during a fourth quarter earnings call Thursday, the company finally offered an update — and the news is … not bad, at least on some fronts. The big takeaways:

➼ Eighteen months after its national launch, Peacock boasts a bit over nine million paid monthly subscribers. Another 7 million folks get Peacock’s premium tier through cable or wireless bundles, where the service is offered at no additional cost. All told, roughly 16 million homes now have access to the full ecosystem of Peacock originals and library content.

➼ Peacock is also available as a totally free version, with more ads and a less expansive content offering. Including consumers who use that service, Comcast says the total number of monthly active accounts for Peacock stands at 24.5 million. That’s up nearly 25 percent from the 20 million MAAs the company reported last summer.

➼ The average Peacock user is bringing in nearly $10 per month in revenue for Comcast, thanks to a combination of subscriber fees and advertising revenue. While that’s less than what Netflix and HBO Max generate with their platforms, it’s more than double what Disney+ (which has no ads) brings in each month. It’s also well above the $6-$7 in so-called ARPU (average revenue per user) Comcast had forecast for Peacock before launch.

➼ Comcast will double its spending on content for Peacock this year, investing $3 billion in a mix of original programming and library acquisitions (including the money it’s spending to put Universal feature films on the service before they stream on other platforms). Execs expect that number will jump to $5 billion within the next couple of years. While that’s not chump change, it pales next to the $15 billion-$20 billion being allocated to HBO Max and Netflix.

Obviously, if you compare Peacock to HBO Max, Netflix, Prime Video or Disney+, the Comcast streamer isn’t even in the same ballpark in terms of subscribers, content or revenue. But while it’s obviously competing for attention and subscribers against those all-star players, Comcast has no illusions about what it is going to be able to achieve through its streaming service alone. “We’re playing a different game than our competitors,” NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell said on today’s earnings call. “Peacock is not a separate business for us. It’s an extension of our existing … dual revenue stream.” Rather than looking at Peacock as a replacement for NBCU’s linear networks, Shell said he sees it as a way to bring in more ad revenue and subscriber fees and, eventually, even helping “our TV business [in] returning to growth overall.”

So far, however, what Peacock has mostly done is burn through a lot of cash for Comcast. The streamer lost an eye-popping $1.7 billion last year, nearly triple the $663 million it red ink it bled in 2020. Analyst Rich Greenfield of LightShed, who’s long been down on traditional media companies’ approach to streaming, was not at all impressed by today’s numbers. “Peacock spent $894 million in operating expenses to generate $335 million of revenues,” he tweeted after the earnings call, attaching a GIF of Michael Scott wincing to underscore the cringe factor in the revenue statement.

One sign that Comcast is worried about the losses piling up at Peacock is that execs today declined to offer any hints about whether they’re planning to claw back Hulu’s access to next-day reruns of NBC network shows. As part of a deal to give up its stake in Hulu by 2024, Comcast has the right to cut off Hulu’s NBC reruns and make them available only on Peacock and the NBC app. There was much speculation late last year that Comcast was about to announce a plan to do just that, but while Shell today said that “over time, we’d like to bring that back to Peacock,” as of now, it had nothing to report. It could just be that there’s no reason to go public with a decision just yet, given that any change wouldn’t happen until the start of the 2022-’23 TV season this fall. On the other hand, Comcast may also be worried about giving up the many millions in ad and license fee revenue it gets from those Hulu reruns. Hulu also provides an excellent ecosystem — far broader than Peacock’s — to boost awareness of NBC’s new shows, which these days need all the help they can get.

Peacock Now Has 17 Million Subscribers