Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCS.A) launched its Peacock streaming service to select Xfinity X1 and Flex customers this week, and it plans to roll out the service to all of its video and internet subscribers before the end of the month. While Comcast had originally planned to launch the service to everyone in July, it's considering moving up the launch date for the general public. "We feel even more strongly we need to bring Peacock as quickly to market as possible," Matt Strauss, Peacock's chairman, said in a conference call.
And there's a good reason for that sentiment. Peacock has been dealt a bad hand, but launching earlier could help boost its chances at winning a share of the streaming video market.
No Olympics means no big launchpad
Comcast's initial launch plan revolved around the 2020 Summer Olympics. But those games have been pushed back until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Without the massive audience tuning into NBC's coverage of the Olympics, Comcast will have to find a new way to get Peacock in front of audiences. Peacock was initially going to have a lot of Olympic coverage to entice viewers of the regular broadcasts to sign up as well. Now it's relying on NBCUniversal's back catalog and few new originals.
But that doesn't mean Comcast should push the launch back. Just the opposite. The company can't afford to delay the launch. And without a big event to launch on like the Olympics, it needs to start getting the product onto the screens of as many people as possible as soon as possible to start recouping its investments.
Coronavirus has people staying at home and streaming more
The number of hours people are spending streaming video is booming as consumers practice social distancing to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. It's an opportune time to launch a new streaming service.
When Disney (NYSE:DIS) launched in Western Europe at the end of March, it quickly added around 12 million new accounts in the market. It also counts around 8 million in newly launched India and around 30 million in North America and Australia, which launched in November.
One area of streaming that's seen outsized growth amid the streaming boom is free ad-supported services. Peacock has both a free and a paid tier, and it's partnering with other cable companies to offer the paid tier to more consumers for free with ads. That could make it quite appealing to consumers who are looking for additional entertainment but don't have much room in their budgets for another streaming subscription.
New competition is coming soon
AT&T (NYSE:T) is set to launch HBO Max next month, which is well ahead of Comcast's planned general launch date for Peacock. HBO has seen a significant rise in engagement on HBO Go and HBO Now -- its current streaming apps -- since mid-March. That bodes well for its forthcoming launch.
If HBO Max has a successful launch with strong signups and engagement, it could overshadow Peacock's launch. If people are busy watching all of the new available content on HBO Max, why do they need to bother checking out what's on Peacock?
Getting ahead of the HBO Max launch may be crucial to winning the attention of content-hungry consumers.
A few big challenges that might stop it from launching early
Comcast is slowly rolling out the service to its own customers in order to learn about what can go wrong when launching a new streaming service. HBO and Disney have pre-existing streaming services that enable them to move more quickly. But even Disney experienced severe outages on the first day of Disney+.
Comcast also might not have deals in place with other pay-TV providers to subsidize the cost of Peacock. The company ultimately wants to renegotiate carriage deals for its cable networks and bundle Peacock into the cable package in order to boost its rates. AT&T is taking a similar approach with HBO Max, planning to get other cable providers on board with offering the service to their HBO subscribers.
Meanwhile, production is halted on Peacock originals (as well as most other shows Peacock plans to offer on an ongoing basis). The company was originally planning to use a lot of exclusive Olympic coverage for the summer launch, with original shows heavily weighted toward the back of the year. As a result, the company's content slate will be relatively thin compared to its competitors. Strauss acknowledged the pandemic will "materially limit our material slate at launch and into 2020."
Despite those challenges, it's in Comcast's best interest to get ahead of the competition and take advantage of the current spike in streaming. It's a tough spot to be in, but it's Comcast's best shot at cashing in on its big bet.