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Will Peacock Get the Olympics Right This Time?

Photo: Peacock

For Peacock, last summer’s Olympics were supposed to offer a chance to hit the reset button following a rocky, pandemic-marred launch. Instead, the Games turned into a massive headache: Not every big event could be seen live on the platform, and finding the ones that were was a chore for even the most tech-savvy consumer. At times, it seemed as if complaining about Peacock was more popular than anything going on in Tokyo. Unsurprisingly, the NBCUniversal streamer is hoping things go more smoothly with this month’s winter games in China — and on at least one front, there is reason to think they will.

The case for optimism is bolstered by one big difference from last year: Peacock is promising every minute of every Olympic event covered by NBC Sports will also be streamed live on its platform and available for later on-demand viewing. Unlike last year, you won’t need to be a cable-TV subscriber in order to watch select sports live, nor will you need to download and sign in to the separate NBC Olympics app. As long as you fork over the $5 needed for a one-month subscription to Peacock Premium, you should be good to go. “For the first time, all Olympic programming will be available to all customers across all platforms, whether you’re a pay TV customer or a cord-cutter,” Peacock president Kelly Campbell said last week at a pre-recorded media briefing.

While nobody at NBCU is publicly offering a mea culpa for last summer’s nonsense, comments from Campbell and other execs have made it clear they got the message. In addition to making sure subscribers will no longer need to jump between platforms to get their Olympics content, the streamer has been working to address the other big complaint from 2021: namely, that it was often difficult to figure out how to stream specific events (or when they’d be available) and that the overall user experience was needlessly complicated. To fix things, Campbell said, the streamer “focused our efforts on three key areas: simplicity, choice, and control.” Among the changes:

A revamped user interface anchored by what Campbell calls “a one-stop shop for all Olympics programming on Peacock.” This new hub is actually already live on the platform and lets users begin planning their viewing by browsing specific sports and then adding individual events to their “My Stuff” watchlists. In addition, every major sport will have its own curated mini-hub with listings of current and upcoming events as well as clips and feature stories related to said sport.

In response to complaints from viewers about not knowing which events were taking place when, Peacock now has comprehensive listings incorporated into the Olympics UI. The app lets subscribers plan by day (starting with an early curling match between Sweden and Great Britain on February 2 and going all the way through to the women’s 30 kilometer freestyle skiing event on February 20) or browse through playlists of events and clips connected to star athletes. The interface even identifies which sports will be airing on NBC primetime or USA Network, in case you juggle between traditional live TV and streaming.

Campbell says there will be “full DVR controls” for Peacock Olympics coverage, letting users easily navigate to the beginning of an event if they join one already in progress, as well as fast-forward and rewind live coverage. And when subscribers reach the end of one event, Peacock will prompt them to start streaming the next one being featured by NBC or give them the chance to choose something else.

While Peacock’s all-out effort to correct last year’s mistakes will hopefully pay off with improved subscriber satisfaction — and less social-media grousing — the larger question is whether the Olympics will mark a much-needed turning point for the streamer. While Peacock did see a notable increase in sign-ups around the time of the 2021 Games, just-reported data shows about half of those new customers were gone within a few months. That’s actually not awful, and Peacock’s current subscriber base — 9 million customers who pay full price and another 7 million who access via their cable or broadband packages — is not atrocious for an 18-month-old platform. But it’s also not great.

That’s why a priority for Peacock during the next few months will be convincing folks who come to the platform for the Games to stick around. The streamer will soon unleash some of its most high-profile content to date, including Bel-Air (the buzzy dramatic reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air); the day-and-date premiere of Universal Pictures’ new Jennifer Lopez rom-com, Marry Me; and the Tiger King-inspired scripted series Joe vs. Carole, starring Kate McKinnon and John Cameron Mitchell. Those three events, which will roll out between February 11 and March 3, will be heavily promoted during coverage of the Olympics, as well as during Peacock’s other massive tentpole for the month: the February 13 simulcast of the Super Bowl on NBC.

The Big Game was supposed to air on NBC last year, but the network worked out a deal to swap places with CBS so that this year’s Super Bowl would air in the middle of the Olympics, creating maximum synergy and momentum for Peacock (not to mention some lucrative advertising sales for NBCUniversal). In another sign of how Peacock has eclipsed the NBC broadcast network within the company, the big post–Super Bowl slot normally reserved for a new or returning entertainment series will instead be filled with coverage of the Olympics. Mostly, that’s a ploy to maximize ratings and ad dollars, with NBC betting the Games will be more popular than any entertainment show. But Peacock has also slotted the first episode of Bel Air to drop the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, and you can bet NBC Sports announcers — or at least NBC’s promos — will be constantly letting viewers know the show is available for immediate streaming. Even if nobody at Peacock is describing it this way, in essence, Bel Air is the de facto post-Super Bowl telecast for 2022.

While the NBC/Peacock Olympics strategy appears to be pretty sound, there are, of course, still lots of things that could go wrong. Because of their location in China, there’s a bit of a pall over the games: Beijing’s record on human rights has prompted a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott. COVID restrictions, and outbreaks, could once again result in star athletes not being able to compete or in events appearing more low-key because of reduced (or absent) crowds. (NBC has already said it’s keeping almost all of its hosts and analysts in the U.S. because of COVID concerns.) And if no exciting narratives develop around Team USA, NBC and Peacock may struggle to generate interest in the Games. Folks like to mock the syrupy human-interest pieces NBC produces, but that emotional connection to competitors is what drives tune-in among viewers who aren’t hard-core sports fans.

Still, it might not be too difficult for NBC to clear the very low ratings bar that has been established for Beijing. Nielsen numbers for the 2021 summer Olympics were historically bad, plummeting 40 percent from the already so-so 2016 Rio Games. And signs are NBC isn’t expecting Beijing to be much better: Beyond the fact that Winter Olympiads have almost always drawn a smaller crowd than their warm-weather counterpart, Business Insider’s Claire Atkinson last week reported that NBC is now telling its advertisers to be prepared for Beijing 2022 audience impressions to come in well below earlier forecasts. While none of this means NBC gets a pass if the Olympics bomb in the ratings department, it does mean it won’t come as a shock — and, in theory, it could even result in the Games surpassing the sea-level expectations.

NBCUniversal and parent company Comcast can also correctly note that traditional ratings, in general far less relevant than ever, simply no longer accurately measure precisely how many folks watch a multiplatform event such as the Olympics. Indeed, the more successful Peacock’s effort is, the harder it will be for NBC to slow its Nielsen declines, since those viewers aren’t counted in the next-day ratings that get widely reported by media outlets. There will similarly be hundreds of millions of impressions for clips on social media and YouTube that won’t be reflected in the official ratings results.

So yes, it will certainly be a form of spin control when NBCU issues a press release touting record sign-ups for Peacock or how many digital streams its Beijing programming has generated. But it will also happen to be true. Nielsen is no longer the final report card for regular TV shows, and there’s no reason its tally alone should determine the perceived success or failure of NBC (and Peacock’s) 2022 Winter Olympics effort. That role will now be filled by our society’s new arbiter: What people are saying about it on Twitter.

Will Peacock Get the Olympics Right This Time?