How NBCUniversal’s Summer Launch of Peacock Could Be Hobbled if Olympics Are Canceled

“There are likely a number of consumers that would initially only visit to watch the event,” Brandon Riney, Parks Associates analyst, tells TheWrap

If the coronavirus leads to the cancellation or postponement of the Summer Olympics, which would be the first since World War II, it could threaten not only NBC’s wallet as primary broadcast partner but also its attempt to launch its new streaming service, Peacock.

NBCUniversal is throwing its hat into the ultra-competitive streaming space, with a soft launch on April 15, meaning it will be available only to Comcast subscribers. The service will have its “Grand Opening” on July 15, which happens to be nine days before the Tokyo Games are scheduled to begin.

NBCUniversal is banking on the Olympics to draw in potential subscribers, both by airing certain events on Peacock, as well as using the massive platform the Olympics provides as a marketing tool. The 2016 Rio Games averaged nearly 26 million viewers in primetime. Peacock will have live coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies as well as three daily shows.

Using the Olympics to boost a new programming initiative would not be a new thing for NBC. In 2014, NBC exploited its coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics to launch Jimmy Fallon’s version of “The Tonight Show.”

NBCUniversal was already facing an uphill battle in streaming. When it becomes available to everyone not already paying Comcast a monthly fee, it will be the last of the three major streaming newcomers to hit the full U.S. market this year. HBO Max is debuting sometime in May, while the short-form Quibi service will become available on April 6. That’s not even counting the two new streaming services launched late last year — Apple TV+ and Disney+ — which joined entrenched players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. (We see you, CBS All Access, but we’re waiting until you unveil this new “House of Brands” platform.)

“While initially available to Comcast’s footprint of users in April, NBCUniversal certainly timed the national rollout of Peacock to coincide with the start of the Olympics in July,” Brandon Riney, Parks Associates analyst, tells TheWrap. “Although Peacock offers much more than the Olympics’ coverage, there are likely a number of consumers that would initially only visit to watch the event. Without it, Peacock loses an enticing ‘gateway’ to a large pool of Olympics fans that could later convert into regular viewers or paid subscribers. Instead, NBCUniversal will have to solely rely on its other media assets to raise awareness of its service.”

Simply put: Peacock will be walking into a crowded bar and will have to fight its way through the masses to make it to the bartender. Unlike the others, it is offering a free version of its service, but that won’t include a lot of the original series that can act as a fishing lure for potential paying subscribers.

But as the spread of Covid-19 continues to put major events around the world in jeopardy, the Olympics as of now are scheduled to begin on time in July. “The Games are going ahead, we’re confident they will go ahead, and we’re confident they will start on the 24th of July,” International Olympics Committee spokesman Mark Adams told reporters last week. But the Games will remain on shaky ground. Last month, IOC senior member Dick Pound told the Associated Press that the committee would have to make a call by May whether or not to cancel or at least postpone the Games. The IOC is also considering holding spectator-free events.

Any Olympics cancellation would harm NBC, which counts on the biennial event to bring in billions of ad dollars. NBC Sports has already secured a record $1.25 billion in ad sales. The 2020 Games are the last under the $4.38 billion rights deal the NBC signed with the IOC; NBC is paying more than $1 billion just for these Games alone.

At least in that regard, Comcast says it’s covered.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said last week that the Games are moving “full steam ahead,” but if there is a “disruption,” Comcast has “insurance for any expenses.” The company is “protected” in other ways by the contract that is in place. “There should be no losses should there not be an Olympics,” he continued. “There just wouldn’t be a profit this year.”

A postponement would be a softer fall for NBC, which would still get to put events on Peacock and use it as a marketing tool. But it would have to wade through a few months of low subscriber counts. Airing the Olympics in the fall wouldn’t be completely without precedence: The 2000 Olympics from Sydney took place from Sept. 15-Oct. 1.

Ironically, Roberts said the effects of the global anxiety surrounding the coronavirus, which has led to mass cancellation of big events and forced many to stay home, could have a positive effect on other parts of its business.

“With 70% of our company being cable and broadband, and that consumption taking place in the home, we’re in a very good set of businesses that actually can see more improvement in our digital service and using your device to transact with our company,” Roberts said. “It could actually accelerate trends that we’re already having.”

But if the disease spreads into the summer months, Peacock’s feathers may have trouble flying as high as NBC expected.

Sean Burch contributed to this story.

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays



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