Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) Peacock is one of several new streaming services that are arriving in a space long dominated by Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX). Slated to hit the market this summer, that's just months after the debut of some other major new entrants, including Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Disney+, Apple's Apple TV+, and AT&T's HBO Max. But Peacock is a little different from its peers.

There are a few things that help Peacock stand out. The most obvious difference is that Peacock is a free and ad-supported service (though there are two premium tiers available, both of which have extra content and one of which gets rid of the commercials). But another difference is worth noting, too: Peacock uses a unique sort of auto-play feature that gives users a cable-like option to watch "whatever's on."

The Peacock TV logo

Image source: Peacock

Peacock's semi-live nature

When users open Peacock's app, they'll be able to choose between a few basic categories of content such as "Channels" and "Trending." When one of these categories is selected, the app doesn't wait around: A video starts playing right away. It's a design choice that makes Peacock feel a bit more like live legacy pay-TV services -- choose a category, and something is "just on."

Peacock is backed by NBCUniversal (owned by Comcast), but the ongoing video feeds that will appear before users will not be 24/7 live feeds of NBC's flagship network (or any other NBC network, for that matter). Instead, they'll be selections from Peacock's library: re-runs of popular shows, news segments, and clips from Saturday Night Live are among the possibilities. NBCUniversal says Peacock will have live coverage of soccer and golf in the future, and it's easy to imagine those truly live events being used with the auto-play feature as well.

It's a clever design choice. Netflix has long struggled with how to get users to actually watch things instead of hemming and hawing over their options -- something that users themselves report being frustrated by. But Netflix's solution, an auto-play feature, is not exactly beloved by users.

Here, Peacock has packaged an auto-play feature as a sort of live-TV substitute. Rather than auto-play options while users are trying to browse, Peacock will offer one auto-playing option -- the thing that's "just on" -- and then let those who would rather hunt down something more specific do so in relative peace. Peacock's "live" feeds are simultaneously powerful content discovery tools that get users watching fast and user-friendly features that border on nostalgic for the legacy pay-TV era.

Peacock has found an elegant solution that should be particularly valuable given the service's ad-supported nature (which makes getting users to watch something fast even more important than it is for Netflix and the rest of the subscription-based gang -- if free accounts aren't watching, then they're not making money for the company).

A role for network channels

Another thing that makes the faux "live" TV available through Peacock so interesting is the model that it could provide to other network TV channels. NBCUniversal is, of course, much more than a channel -- Comcast owns plenty of media properties, and in that sense, Peacock resembles Disney+ (albeit on a smaller scale). But faux-live auto-playing streams could be a smart design choice for individual networks and channels as traditional pay TV fades away.

Streaming multichannel services like AT&T TV Now and DISH's Sling TV have met with plenty of challenges and only limited success. Despite the hopes of some tech investors, there is a strong case to be made that the future of pay-TV networks is not in a traditional multichannel bundle, regardless of whether that bundle is a legacy pay-TV bundle or a streaming one. But being on live TV still matters. Many cable networks rely on sitcoms, dramas, and other content that is not truly "live" when it is aired as such, but these networks also use certain models to build hits -- like putting shows back-to-back or in prime time -- that would not work in an on-demand format. Perhaps, then, the Peacock model of on-demand content transformed into cable-like "live" TV is the wave of the future.

In fact, network giant Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA) (NASDAQ:VIAB) acquired a service that works in a similar way -- Pluto TV -- back in spring of last year. Pluto TV is a free ad-supported streaming service that offers a sort of simulated live multichannel TV experience. The UI is modeled on the familiar cable channel guide screen, and channels are mostly made up of streaming on-demand content that Pluto TV curates and sequences to create a selection of content that's "just on."

Pluto TV's Viacom era is still just beginning, but it already looks a bit like this: Pluto TV combines an on-demand library of content from Viacom channels with "live" selections drawn from within that same library in a way that is reminiscent of what Peacock will do (there is also some limited live content on Pluto TV). Viacom's biggest channels and most popular shows are generally not on Pluto TV, but they could have a home waiting for them there if the legacy pay-TV scene becomes less hospitable.

The Peacock/Pluto TV model could give companies used to the multichannel system the chance to keep using their old tricks. New shows could be launched in prime time or back to back with old favorites (in fact, media-turned-streaming-tech companies could theoretically deliver different prime-time shows to different IP addresses based on viewer habits, in a sort of live-TV version of the omnipresent on-demand recommendation algorithm -- though we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves with speculation).

Can we expect more like Peacock?

Peacock is not without its problems, of course. Its relatively modest plans may not compare to Disney's splashy entry into the market. It will have less content than leaders like Netflix and fewer flashy releases on offer than Disney+. Furthermore, Peacock's "live" TV is (for the most part) not truly live and does not seem likely to replace NBC's live TV networks any time soon. Still, its structure hints at a way for networks that thrive on "live" to make do as cable and satellite subscriptions wane. If legacy pay-TV subscriptions continue to decline (a virtual certainty) and if live multichannel streaming services don't emerge as clear heirs, TV networks may find new homes in ad-supported, direct-to-consumer streaming services that look a lot like Peacock.