Peacock Chief Matt Strauss On Building A Streaming “Start-Up” In Turbulent Times, Avoiding “Casino” Feel Of On-Demand Rivals

Matt Strauss, a veteran Comcast exec who took the helm of NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock last fall, knew one thing for certain when he started: He wasn’t creating a copycat offering.

“TV tends to be very dynamic,” he told Deadline in an interview ahead of Peacock’s July 15 nationwide expansion. “It’s current. It’s social. Many streaming services feel more like a casino. There’s no sense of time or place.”

Emphasizing live and timely programming “plays to our strengths. Why not go broader with the ambition of not limiting ourselves to just movies and TV and kids? Why not lean into sports or news or reality?” Peacock will seek to do that with features like a “channels” tab on the home screen, which pulls up an on-screen programming guide highlighting programming tied to networks, show brands and talent. Another element is a “trending” section, which points users to timely pieces of video across sports, pop culture and news.

Striking an appealing balance for consumers inundated with streaming choices will be crucial for Peacock as it broadens its reach. The service’s national debut caps an unprecedented flurry of multi-billion-dollar streaming launches from Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia and others trying to make up ground versus established players like Netflix and Amazon. Comcast has said it plans to spend $2 billion on Peacock over its first two years.

Compared with rivals, Peacock “is really meant to tap into that pulse,” Strauss said, and serve as a “destination where you can come to it every single day and know that not only is it being updated and changing but it’s incredibly timely. It’s current to what’s going on in the world.” That quality, he added, is seen “on social platforms. You don’t see it as much in streaming.”

One reason for the embrace of live is that Peacock is ad-supported, with 10 sponsors confirmed for launch and a maximum of 5 minutes of commercials planned per hour. That’s a lighter load than the average of eight minutes in streaming and double that in linear TV. The basic tier, with about 7,500 hours of programming, is available for free. Peacock Premium, which layers in original series and other marquee titles like Jurassic Park or Alfred Hitchcock movies, is free for Comcast customers but is $5 for others. (A $5 premium on top of that eliminates ads, though the company doesn’t expect that to be a major slice of its user base.)

Speaking of advertising, a lot has changed in the media landscape since NBCUniversal executives unveiled Peacock for a crowd of investors and media in mid-January at 30 Rockefeller Center. COVID-19 wiped out sports, production and the Olympics in Tokyo, which had been planned as a crucial marketing platform for Peacock, though it did mean viewers were stuck at home streaming more than ever. Delaying the launch wasn’t seriously considered, given the sudden surge in streaming interest. Protests against racial injustice provided another jolt.

The months leading up to 2020 were also eventful, with Steve Burke stepping down as CEO of NBCU, shortly after he restructured the company, with Strauss replacing Bonnie Hammer as the overseer of Peacock. (Hammer became chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios.)

Due to the pandemic, Peacock is reaching its full launch with nine original titles across drama, unscripted and kids, fewer than it had planned. Titles include Brave New World, an Aldous Huxley sci-fi adaptation starring Alden Ehrenreich and Demi Moore, and docuseries In Deep with Ryan Lochte. (Deadline TV Editor Peter White spoke last week with Peacock originals chief Bill McGoldrick and acquisitions head Frances Manfredi about their overall content plans.)

“There’s been a confluence of things we’ve had to navigate,” Strauss said. “But that’s one of the advantages of being a start-up. You can be scrappy, you can be flexible. You have to be ready and willing to make adjustments along the way. We’re building our culture” in a way that adversity “only makes us stronger.”

Strauss, a 16-year Comcast vet who steered the buildout of Xfinity and its ahead-of-the-curve integrations of Netflix and YouTube into its X1 pay-TV interface and its broadband offering Flex. He has spent a career largely focused on streaming since before it was called streaming. Prior to Comcast, he developed Mag Rack, a pioneering video on demand offering from Rainbow Media (now AMC Networks) in the early 2000s, when it was owned by Cablevision.

Asked for results of the early run of Peacock, Strauss declined to offer numbers. But he said the company has already exceeded year-end targets for monthly active users, time spent, frequency and return rate, with the app among the most popular on X1. In January, management offered a forecast for $2.5 billion in revenue by 2024, with 30 million to 35 million active users and the service breaking even financially.

That outlook remains intact even though 2020 will unfold without the Olympics, which Burke had described as an “after-burner” for Peacock that would help it break out widely in the summer.

“In a way, I actually believe we’re in a stronger position than where we had planned to be,” Strauss argued. “Even though we don’t have the benefit of the Olympics this year, we’ve been able to create a new marketing campaign that in some ways is going to deliver the same amount of impressions as we were planning during the Olympics but we were able to spread it out across the back half of the year.” He called that “a more effective execution for us because then it maintains a cadence of promotion that doesn’t happen within a two-week period. It happens over the course of a six-month period.”

The pandemic also turned Peacock’s initial rollout across the Comcast Xfinity footprint, which started April 15, suddenly became a very different kind of trial run. For one thing, Strauss said, the team was struck by how much “comfort-food” TV audiences seemed to crave. The “trending” tab intended as a major conduit for Premier League soccer or NBC News instead became a way to highlight other fare.

“What we found was a lot of people who were turning to streaming services were doing so because they wanted to escape what was going on in the world,” Strauss said. “We had to shift how we approached trending because we had intended to lean heavily on news and that’s precisely what we found that people at this point were not looking for.” As examples, he cited Saturday Night Live sketches when the show was producing its at-home episodes or the nightly At Home Variety Show, which Seth MacFarlane started producing during the initial quarantine.

The company also added volume, boosting the total offering to 20,000 hours of programming, up from the original plan for 15,000. Shows like Everybody Loves Raymond have recently joined a roster dominated by classic NBC titles like Cheers, Frasier and Law & Order. The Office, a top performer on Netflix in recent years, will be on Peacock at the start of 2021. Longtime sports properties will get prominent billing, with more than 175 Premier League soccer games available exclusively on Peacock in the U.S., plus an NFL playoff game and U.S. Open Golf. Once the Olympics do arrive, Peacock will offer extensive coverage of the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo, soon followed by the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Distribution and price will be two key prongs of the strategy. Starting Wednesday, Peacock’s premium tier will be bundled at no extra charge for Cox pay-TV customers, a model the company is pursuing with other partners. A deal with Google has been announced, but as yet no agreements have been reached with two major platforms: Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which together reach more than 80 million U.S. homes. Unlike HBO Max, which has emphasized its dim view of talks with Amazon, NBCU says discussions are ongoing with both.

“We believe we’re going to be able to blanket the country in a way that most consumers are either going to have access to the free version or the premium version for de facto free,” Strauss said. “If that’s right, then that influences how you drive originals. It means originals are less about driving acquisition. They’re really more about driving consumption.”

As to decisions about putting titles either on the basic tier or the premium one, Strauss said, “It’s a fine line we’re trying to walk. If you’re going to go to market with a premium, free offering, it’s got to be good. You’ve got to deliver a real value. Getting somebody to download is not success. It’s getting somebody to use it and continue to use it.”

He emphasized that building toward a long-term goal is the priority. “It’s only going to get better,” he said. “There’s a much longer-term strategy at work that we’re measuring ourselves against. It doesn’t mean July isn’t important, because of course it is. But we’ve charted a course.”

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