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Peacock's Launch Exceeded Comcast's Expectations

By Adam Levy – May 7, 2020 at 8:55AM

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But investors in this media giant shouldn't get too excited.

Comcast (CMCSA -1.94%) launched Peacock -- its ad-supported streaming service -- to Xfinity video and internet subscribers last month. During Comcast's first-quarter earnings call on April 30, management said the limited rollout exceeded its expectations.

"We're already pacing ahead of our internal forecast on monthly active users and in time spent viewing," CEO Brian Roberts told investors.

Before investors get too excited thinking Peacock is the next Disney+ (DIS -2.60%), there are a few points of caution. First of all, Peacock launched amid a boom in streaming video demand. Second, Comcast's expectations were very low. And finally, management gave no plans to move up the broader launch date (still scheduled for July) despite the successful soft-launch.

Peacock homescreen on a TV and its logo on a computer, tablet, and smartphone.

Image source: NBCUniversal.

The perfect time to launch a streaming service

It's no surprise that customers are spending more time than expected watching shows and films on Peacock. Consumers are spending more time than ever streaming video as they stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sports games are postponed, and the broadcast television schedule is becoming increasingly sparse as spring seasons wrap up.

Video streaming to TVs climbed 85% year over year in the first three weeks of March, according to data from Nielsen. And that's before stay-at-home orders were fully in place. April likely saw an even bigger jump in streaming hours.

There's substantial demand for premium streaming content. Disney launched Disney+ in Europe and India at the end of March and early April, and added about 20 million subscribers in just a matter of days. Netflix (NFLX -4.49%) just had its best quarter ever, adding nearly 16 million subscribers. So, Comcast is far from the only one seeing strong results from a streaming service.

Setting a low bar

Comcast has relatively modest expectations for Peacock. When it unveiled its plans in January, management forecast 30 million to 35 million U.S. viewers by 2024. To put that in perspective, Disney+ reached 28 million (mostly U.S.) subscribers within three months of launching. Netflix has over 60 million paid subscribers in the U.S.

Not only does Comcast expect low total viewership, it seems to expect relatively low engagement as well. It expects average ad revenue per viewer to be about half that of Disney's ad-supported Hulu viewers. That's despite similar ad loads, pre-existing sales channels and relationships, and good ad technology. In other words, it expects relatively low engagement.

So the fact that Comcast is seeing higher-than-expected numbers of active users and hours spent streaming doesn't say much. That's especially true considering it comes during a time of increased demand for free ad-supported streaming video services.

Why not move up the launch date?

It's a bit concerning that Comcast isn't moving up the broader launch date for Peacock. There are several reasons it's in the media company's best interest to launch as soon as possible. Peacock chairman Matt Strauss even said he wants to bring Peacock to market as quickly as possible last month.

But when asked why the company isn't moving up the launch, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell responded: "We don't see the value and we're not trying to gain subscribers. And we want to make sure the product is right before we launch in July. So this is kind of a measured strategy on our part, and I think it's the right strategy for Peacock."

More likely, Comcast is working with other pay-TV distributors to offer Peacock to their subscribers at no extra cost. And it's been negotiating with them under the assumption of a July launch. Launching without those partnerships would ultimately produce a very disappointing result. Still, it seems like there's room to accelerate those negotiations and move up the launch.

It seems curious management isn't making any effort to launch earlier despite the early success and window of opportunity for Peacock. Combined with the relatively low expectations management had for the streaming service, investors shouldn't get too excited about management's comments.

Adam Levy owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney and short July 2020 $115 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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