It has been a bumpy two years for Peacock, the NBCUniversal-owned streaming service that first poked its head into the world nearly two years ago via a soft launch for Comcast Xfinity customers. COVID shutdowns wreaked havoc on its early programming pipeline, including pushing what was supposed to have been its big early draw — the 2020 Summer Olympics — back a full year. There were several executive shuffles at the top, both before and after launch. And when the Tokyo Games finally did arrive, what should have been a triumph turned into a massive headache, as consumers complained about a glitchy app and some events being held back for other platforms. It hasn’t been an easy ride for Peacock — and yet in recent months there have been early signs of a shift in momentum.
Unlike Tokyo, last month’s Beijing Olympics went smoothly, at least from the Peacock point of view: The app worked well this time, and while linear ratings tanked, streaming surged. Peacock also got a boost from its simultaneous stream of the Super Bowl and the heavily hyped premieres of its new series, Bel-Air, and the Jennifer Lopez movie Marry Me, which was added to the service the same day the Universal feature hit theaters. And in a major vote of confidence in its young streamer, NBCU Friday confirmed it was walking away from the years-long agreement that made Disney-owned Hulu home to NBC’s in-season primetime programming. Starting in September, hits such as Saturday Night Live and Dick Wolf’s Chicago-set procedural dramas will be seen only on Peacock hours after their broadcast airing. While the move means walking away from millions in ad-share revenue, NBCU believes it will pay off with more sign-ups for its own streamer — a bet it wouldn’t make if it weren’t fully committed to Peacock’s future.
Kelly Campbell also knows something about leaving Hulu for Peacock. The former Google exec spent four years at the Disney streamer, including two as president, until last October, when she suddenly departed to join Peacock as its president. With colleagues Susan Rovner (the head of content for NBCU Television and Streaming) and Pearlena Igbokwe (who runs the Universal Studio Group) focused on developing content for Peacock, Campbell has been tasked with overseeing the streamer’s day-to-day business and figuring out how to fuel its overall growth. In an hourlong interview with Vulture — her first since joining Peacock — Campbell outlined just how she plans to do that and why she thinks there’s room in the streaming universe for the platform.
So your bosses have made it clear they want to make Peacock into one of the top streaming services out there. You’re not there yet. What’s the key to making that happen?
It’s first and foremost content. When we look at the streaming space and what motivates consumers, content is often the hook that pulls someone into a streaming service. So that includes taking big swings when it comes to original series [and] films. It includes curating the right mix of library and licensed content from both the creative engines within NBCU and from the broader ecosystem. It includes making the right bets on sports — both some of the bigger, more well-known sports as well as niche sports that really have a strong fan base — and also continuing to make the right investments in the news category. So we’re really looking at our audience, our consumers who have started using Peacock today and our most immediately addressable market, to say: What is the right mix of content that’s going to satisfy their needs? That’s where we’re making our biggest investments.
How much was Peacock hurt early on during its first year or so by the fact that there didn’t seem to be a consistent cadence of interesting, high-profile original content? The COVID shutdowns and the delay of the Olympics obviously were things that couldn’t be controlled, but wasn’t the lack of scripted hits a problem? There was no House of Cards moment.
I actually think Peacock took a really strong approach when it came to entering the market with original content, especially given all the headwinds with COVID. Peacock launched more than 70 originals in the first year and a half. We are looking to launch another 50 to 60 this year. We might not see the volume that we saw immediately at launch, but we are really focused and have learned a lot in that time. We’ve got a couple years of first-party data now, and so we’re in a really good position to make smart content decisions when it comes to originals and to take big swings. That’s exactly what we’re doing in partnership with our development team and studios.
You definitely showed off a lot of hours of original content in early February with the launch of Bel-Air, the day-and-date premiere of the
J.Lo theatrical Marry Me, and the combination of the Olympics and Super Bowl. Now that you’ve seen the data, how did that blitz of programming do?
Record breaking in every way. It’s hard to find the right words to express just how big February has been for us. Peacock broke [Peacock] records on every front, from new subscribers and usage to concurrent streams and more in just one month, and really that long weekend you referenced. We launched the most-streamed Olympics, the most-streamed Super Bowl. We had the most-streamed film launch with Marry Me. It is trending quickly to become the most-streamed film of all time on Peacock. We launched our most-streamed original series, Bel-Air, which is already the third-most-streamed title on the platform of all time and trending very quickly to become our top series — and that’s with only five episodes out there. So we can only imagine just how high that can go.
When you say third-most title overall, you’re referring to library shows and movies then, right?
I imagine The Office and Yellowstone would be up near the top for you in terms of the other top two titles.
Yellowstone and The Office are incredibly successful on Peacock. But think about how many hours of content are available for those titles, and that with Bel-Air we only have five episodes available so far. So to already be in that space with titles like that is pretty incredible. And relative to other originals, I would say Bel-Air is on an entirely new trajectory.
You also mentioned the numbers for the Olympics. Last summer, Peacock took a lot of flak for a suboptimal presentation of the Games, but from personal observation, it seemed to go much better this time.
We made a promise to consumers to get it right this time; to make every event, every replay available to consumers in a way that’s easy to digest and consume and navigate, and I think we delivered on that promise. I feel incredibly proud of the work the team did in order to make that true. That paid off.
I know there hasn’t been an official press release or anything, but your bosses at NBCU have now informed Disney that they will be terminating the arrangement that allowed NBC shows to stream next day on Hulu. By all accounts, that means they’ll be on Peacock instead starting in September. That seems like a big deal.
I can’t speak to the specifics, but Peacock will become the exclusive streaming home of NBC current-season content later this year. We do think it’s a big deal. We see this as an opportunity to lean into that broader strategy — bringing the best content in the market to consumers, including the best of NBCU’s portfolio content. In bringing that content home to Peacock, it also gives us a lot of opportunities to think about windowing, and how we program across our entire portfolio. Shows like La Brea, Saturday Night Live, Law & Order: SVU — these are among the most-watched current series on Peacock. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is another example. That became the most-watched NBC telecast of  and the No. 2 live event in Peacock history at that time, behind only WrestleMania. We’re also experimenting with windowing. With [Bravo’s] Below Deck Mediterranean, we launched episodes one week early on Peacock, and that was able to really grow that audience.
You came to Peacock a few months ago from Hulu, where you sort of could watch Peacock from afar during its launch phase. You have the advantage of not having been in the trenches then, so you bring an outsider’s perspective. What do you think about how things played out over the first year or two?
I think when Peacock entered the market, there was a realization that it wasn’t just about disruption or being the first to market or being the first to scale. It’s really about having the right content and building a quality relationship with consumers. You’re not going to hear us talking about these big numbers and providing no clarity on what’s within them. We’re really focused on building a long-term, sustainable business. We’re in the long game. It’s not just about scale. It’s about scaling while building a quality relationship with consumers. I think that’s a different lens than perhaps other streamers, especially at other points in time, may have looked at the market through. I think Peacock is really going to be focused on that idea of creating value, building a sustainable business. We’re focused on the long game.
Do you think there was a mistake in how Peacock was initially branded? The early campaign for the service was basically “Peacock is free!” And while it’s still true viewers can sign up for free and watch some content for free, the bulk of your offering is paid. Was it wrong to send mixed messages to consumers?
I don’t think it was a mistake. I think it was a smart move. I think the free and bundled approach played a really critical part in scaling Peacock. The free tier served a couple of purposes. First of all, it opened up the funnel. A very large portion of the total addressable market has signed up for and engaged with Peacock in some way since the launch. We were also able to replicate the model in Europe with Sky and put Peacock in front of consumers outside of the U.S. earlier than planned beginning last November. So the free tier to date has been an incredibly effective platform for customers to sign up, explore, and just enter the Peacock ecosystem.
That being said, consumers are voting with their time and with their wallets, and they’re spending more time on our paid and bundled tiers, and increasingly they’re choosing to sign up for our paid and bundled tiers. Those who pay us directly, in fact, make up the largest and fastest growing portion of our active accounts. We shared recently in our earnings that we have more than 9 million paid subscribers and more than 7 million bundled subscribers out of 25 million monthly active users. Our paid and bundled consumers make up about 75 percent of total viewership on the service, and that’s growing as well. We got to this point of being able to focus more on building our dual-revenue paid business model a lot more quickly than planned.
Peacock also struck a deal to take over the subscriber base of WWE’s direct-to-consumer service, and you’ve now got a ton of WWE content. How’s that working out?
WWE has been an incredibly successful partnership for Peacock since launch. We invested in an incredible fan base that provides us the opportunity to bring those fans back time and time again with the massive live events that are part of the WWE franchise. We have WrestleMania, in fact, returning on April 3. This is already one of our biggest live events of the year. And we have an original series that I’m super-excited about featuring John Cena coming later this year called WWE Evil that I think will bring a fun new take on the space for this audience.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the reaction to Peacock’s Olympics coverage last month was a lot more positive than during the Summer Games in 2021. The user interface just worked a lot better. But Peacock and a lot of streamers still struggle with user interface and experience. Are we going to see any noticeable improvements within the next 6 to 12 months? Is there a plan for change?
There is. We have an aggressive road map. I’m glad you’ve noticed that we’ve been investing. I think the Olympics is the best example of how far we’ve come. The team really rallied to get in front of launching the features, some of which are quite visible to consumers and some of which are very much behind the scenes when it comes to just processing the amount of data and complexity behind the scenes to create this seamless one-stop shop for all things Olympics on Peacock. Looking to the future, we’re investing in things that improve the overall experience. You’ll see us focusing on improving video playback experiences. You’ll see changes in our overall browse and discovery experiences, and how we bring more personalization to the consumer experience. Those are all priorities for us over the course of this current year.
So we can expect changes by the end of the year then, or will it be a slower evolution?
I wouldn’t expect one day you’ll open Peacock and it will look entirely different. I’d say we have a really clear vision of what we believe will improve the experience with the consumer almost in a way that should be less noticeable to the consumer, because these are things that will just make it that much more seamless for the consumer to open Peacock, find what they want to watch, and begin that playback experience.
Let’s talk movies. You noted earlier Marry Me was a big success. You’ve got Firestarter coming in May, and you just announced Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul will premiere over Labor Day weekend the same day it hits theaters. How important is film to your strategy overall?
We’re very invested in film. We believe film is incredibly valuable to streaming audiences. But just to back up a little bit and put it into context, we look at film as a category overall. We do that very much in partnership with Donna Langley and the Universal Pictures team more broadly. When we look at the Peacock film strategy, we look at it through a few different lenses. We look at it through the pay-one deal, which is structured to bring films that launch in theaters to Peacock audiences more quickly than they would have come in the past. We are also still opportunistically bringing films from Universal to Peacock day-and-date. We are investing in film from a licensed and library perspective, both looking very closely at our catalog within the NBCU ecosystem and at third-party opportunities, such as Harry Potter. And, of course, original film is an opportunity for Peacock, and we are planning to make investments there in partnership with Donna and the Universal team.
Netflix has made a big deal out of having new movies every week. With what sort of frequency do you want to have films premiere on Peacock?
I’m hesitant to put an exact cadence out because this is something we’re actively exploring at the moment. I would say we’re looking not only at that repetition of one per week, one per month, but also at moments in time when we think consumers are going to be most hungry for film content, to see if there’s perhaps a cadence that breaks a bit from the norm.
Do all the films have to have a big- or even a medium-size budget? It seems like there’s an opportunity to do lower-cost films, what we used to call made-for-TV movies.
I think there’s absolutely an opportunity to make films that are very efficient from a budget perspective. That doesn’t have to mean that there’s a hit to the quality. We’re definitely looking at all options when it comes to our investment portfolio. We’ve certainly seen examples of films that aren’t the biggest budget on the planet that perform incredibly well with streaming audiences. So we’re going to continue to look to consumers for cues on what to invest in, and I think there’s still an appetite very much for films that don’t necessarily meet that high bar on investment but really do meet the needs of what consumers want to sit down and watch on the weekend.
NBCUniversal has such a deep library of classic TV shows and movies, and some of that is on Peacock. I personally watch a lot of Columbo and Rockford Files on Peacock. But it still seems like you’ve only scratched the surface of what you could be offering. Any plans to expand classic content on the service?
I will say some of your favorites — Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, Rockford Files — do perform very well, and so we are going to continue to explore where to add more. We have increased our catalog by more than 500 percent in just our first year and a half. So we are certainly taking big swings when it comes to those tentpoles and brand-worthy content launches, but we are also looking very much to build the right depth into the content experience for consumers. We need to invest in content that’s not only going to attract new consumers but that’s going to continue to engage the consumers that we have and satisfy them with not just the new, buzzy content but with some deep library favorites.
Peacock has absolutely made a lot of progress, especially in its second year. But it does still seem to have a bit of a brand problem. There’s a sense that you don’t have enough breakout hits, or that you’re in a lower tier far behind some of the bigger streamers on the block. Some folks on Wall Street have even suggested Peacock is just part of a holding play while Comcast waits to combine with a bigger company. What’s your response to those critics?
We are definitely not treating this business like a holding play. We are investing. Hopefully, that’s clear. We shared our content investment quite publicly in our earnings. Do I think that we have a chance to continue to shape the understanding of Peacock? I do. But I think that we are on the right side of where the industry is going. When I look at the market and investor communities and how they’re evaluating the success of streamers, it’s no longer just, “Give me a paid subs number, and what does that look like relative to last quarter of last year?” They’re starting to ask the right questions around things like the quality of these subscribers, the engagement level of these subscribers, the average revenue per user for these subscriber bases.
We have been focused on building a long-term, sustainable business. We’re shifting our focus more and more to those quality subscribers, and we’re going to stay laser focused on building that quality while scaling. Our focus is going to be scaling with quality and long-term business success and positive returns in focus and in mind. I think the Peacock business is much further along in that strategy than we thought we’d be at this point, and that gives us the ability to accelerate. We’re coming out of our biggest month ever. The business is off to a strong start in 2022. We’ve got tremendous wind in our sails and momentum with consumers … I see it every day when I wake up and open my dashboard.
You just mentioned your dashboard. Is that basically your equivalent of ratings, where you see what the engagement was and how everything is performing?
That’s right. First thing in the morning, that’s what I do.
Some things don’t change in TV.