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ViacomCBS Decides to License Content to Rival Peacock: 3 Takeaways

By James Brumley – Jul 5, 2020 at 5:29AM

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The partnership seems a bit surprising, until you look at how these two competitors differ.

With nothing more than a passing glance, the agreement isn't terribly interesting. NBCUniversal's Peacock streaming service slated to launch in the middle of this month needs video entertainment content -- ViacomCBS (PARA -2.46%) (PARA.A -2.48%) has it.

A more scrutinizing look at the deal, however, raises questions. Namely, why is the owner of CBS as well as movie studio Paramount helping NBC and Universal, respectively, establish Peacock when Viacom already operates a similar streaming service called CBS All Access? Sure, NBCUniversal is paying licensing fees, but all deals impose some sort of trade-off. Viacom may ultimately be short-changing itself by losing exclusive access to some of its own content.

A deeper dive into the matter leads investors to three conclusions, two of which make perfect sense given each company's particular strategy. The third suggests Comcast (CMCSA -0.14%), which owns NBCUniversal, may already be winning a war it's not even fighting.

Businessman with a stack of three numbered blocks representing three things investors can conclude from ViacomCBS's decision.

Image source: Getty Images

Crossing competitive lines

The press release was posted Wednesday. When Peacock goes live for all consumers on July 15, it will offer several CBS shows like Undercover Boss, Everybody Hates Chris, and Real Husbands of Hollywood. Among Paramount's film titles Peacock's users will be able to enjoy are Fatal Attraction, The Firm, and The Godfather trilogy.

Licensing content owned by an outside party isn't unheard of; a great deal of the video content offered by Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) or Prime, from Amazon, still isn't actually made by Netflix or Amazon. Both companies are simply looking to create a more robust catalog that draws a bigger audience.

NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS are undisputed, head-to-head competitors on the linear cable front as well as within the streaming arena. Movie theaters are also a battleground. The fact that both are fostering such a cozy relationship now is surprising to say the least...until one connects the dots of the hints both companies have dropped in the recent past.

1. NBCUniversal's priority is the advertising angle

To date, mainstream streaming names like Netflix have focused on delivering an ad-free experience. Only a handful of names like Tubi -- now owned by Fox Corp -- and one tier of Walt Disney's Hulu injected ads into their streams. When NBCUniversal first explained Peacock early this year, advertising was a key component of the business model. 

In February, NBCUniversal doubled-down on the idea with the debut of One Platform. One Platform is an ad-buying and ad-campaign management tool that gives markets "the power to reach all audiences everywhere they are, across the full NBCUniversal ecosystem, and enables every impression to be data-informed." At the time, it seemed to be a far greater solution to a problem than was necessary. But now that Peacock will be tapping ViacomCBS content, it's clear that NBCUniversal wants as many viewers as possible any way they can get them, because the ad revenue Comcast collects is ultimately based on the size of its streaming audience.

2. ViacomCBS is licensing-focused

That's in contrast with ViacomCBS's approach.

In January, shortly after the dust resulting from the merger of CBS and Viacom finally settled, CEO Bob Bakish commented in an interview, "ViacomCBS will be one of the preeminent content companies in the world, and we'll serve both third-party and our owned-and-operated platforms."

It seemed like little more than a throw-away comment at the time...a vague promise that doesn't actually lay out a specific revenue-generation plan. But in that particular instance, investors should have taken Bakish's words to heart.

And yet, it should also be noted ViacomCBS isn't looking to completely abandon its role as a cable TV and movie name with a direct-to-consumer business. Dan Cohen, president of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group, explained in Wednesday's press release, "The partnership we are announcing today is consistent with our strategy to maximize the value of our content by selectively licensing our library product to third parties while prioritizing franchise IP for our own platforms."

3. ViacomCBS's decision implies Peacock has already won AVOD

Finally, while ViacomCBS would probably dispute the idea, licensing its content to a direct competitor would suggest the company believes NBCUniversal's Peacock is going to become the ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) powerhouse Comcast hopes it will be. ViacomCBS could have altered its existing CBS All Access platform to offer an ad-supported tier. The fact that it didn't (or at least hasn't yet) speaks volumes and indicates it is simply aligning itself with a partner that maximizes its monetization opportunity, which apparently isn't in-house. Moreover, not only is it doing so before any other content owners do the same, it's doing so before the ad-supported version of Peacock is even up and running.

Bottom line

While NBCUniversal may be best-positioned to take the lead in the burgeoning AVOD race, that's not necessarily a loss for ViacomCBS. The two companies' models are not identical, and while NBCUniversal may take the lead in the ad-supported streaming market, bear in mind that's still an unproven model at the sort of scale it's aiming for, using so much new and original content. It's expecting to sign up between 30 million and 35 million users by 2024.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. James Brumley has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and recommends the following options: short July 2020 $115 calls on Walt Disney, long January 2022 $1920 calls on Amazon, long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney, and short January 2022 $1940 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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