Recent reporting from Business Insider and The Information suggesting Peacock is at a crossroads raises two questions:
- NBCU and Comcast are re-evaluating its business objectives for Peacock
- Comcast executives may be more incentivized to solve for the business objectives of Peacock than NBCU CEO Jeff Shell
After Friday’s “Mic Drop on Visionary vs. Fiduciary Framework” essay, a reader asked me, “How is this framework applicable in my day-to-day?” (NOTE: the reader is a journalist).
I think that’s a reasonable and fair question. The short answer is, focus on objectives, and focus on incentives.
You are identifying a company’s stated business objectives, and leveraging all available information to determine whether the company and its executives are incentivized to achieve those objectives.
The longer answer lies in a helpful recent example is Business Insider’s Claire Atkinson report from Friday that “NBCUniversal has discussed a new subscription video-streaming service separate from Peacock” ($ - paywalled).
NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell has recently held conversations about the potential for a Universal-branded subscription video service, according to two people familiar with the talks.
While the conversations are in the early stages, the rationale behind such a plan would be to grow globally and compete with tech giants Netflix and Amazon as well as Disney and AT&T's WarnerMedia.NBCU last year launched Peacock, which is primarily a free-ad supported streaming service with a paid, ad-free tier.
But while Peacock is a familiar icon to American viewers, the brand name means little to viewers around the world.
There is an obvious objective here: to solve for the fact that the Peacock brand-name is U.S.-centric and therefore cannot scale globally.
For NBCU to have a service that scale globally “and compete with tech giants Netflix and Amazon as well as Disney and AT&T's WarnerMedia”, it needs a more recognized brand than “Peacock”. Both Atkinson and Jessica Toonkel of The Information have reported “Universal Stream” is the brand that is being discussed, but it already faces conflicts with Universal brands overseas.
There also seems to be an implicit objective lurking in both Atkinson’s and Toonkel’s reporting: the premium, ad-free tier on Peacock is underperforming, it has become a pain point, and therefore NBCU needs to pursue an alternative model or models.
Toonkel told us a few weeks ago:
…data from an internal NBCU presentation viewed by The Information showed that Peacock recently had only 11.3 million “monthly active ad-supported accounts.” (Active accounts are households and can include multiple viewers). A Peacock spokesperson said the 11.3 million figure was low.
The data also suggests that Peacock’s priciest $9.99 tier that doesn’t carry ads only drew 4% of people signing up to use Peacock. Most viewers watch either the free tier or the $5 a month tier with some ads.
That means Peacock is reliant on the ad market to generate revenue for streaming—where it competes with giants like YouTube and the TV networks—whereas Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max are all ad-free and rely on subscribers.
In short, ad sales is a game of scale, and the available data tells us that Peacock has not yet reached the scale to win that game. At 11.3MM active households, it is at less than 10% of the 120MM households which streamed YouTube or YouTube TV on their TV screens last December, alone. At 4% of “people signing up” to use Peacock, that is either 452K paid subscribers (of 11.3MM households) , or 1.32MM paid subscribers (of 33MM registered users), which is 3% of the near 40MM U.S. subscribers Disney signed up between November 2019 and February 2021.
Looking at NBCU’s past and proposed objectives for Peacock, it is clear Peacock has had a disappointing first year and has reached a crossroads.
Who owns the vision for Peacock at a crossroads?
Toonkel tells us that the original vision for Peacock - News, Sports, and Entertainment - was former NBCU CEO Steve Burke’s. But now, new NBCU CEO Jeff Shell believes that “NBCU should try and build the pricier subscription tier of Peacock’s business”.
So the question becomes whether Shell is incentivized by Comcast to be a fiduciary executive - constrained by the objectives of his predecessor to solve for Peacock - or a visionary executive who is empowered to spin out the subscription-only tier of Peacock towards his more international vision of the streaming opportunity.
NBCU - meaning, Comcast - “would need to spend billions of dollars to launch a new subscription streamer” to build an additional subscription streaming service focused on premium content and movies. That is a constraint both on Shell as a fiduciary executive - he has to get approval from Comcast for the investment - and a constraint if he wants to use this crisis to transform into a visionary executive.
Shell would also need to solve for the fact that both Peacock and “Universal Stream” require more premium original programs. This is a pain point for NBCU given the impact of the pandemic and cord-cutting on its cable business and production schedules: it has a lot of its premium content exclusively on Hulu, like The Real Housewives franchise, and some which it shares with Hulu, like Keeping Up with The Kardashians and Modern Family.
Atkinson reports NBCU may get this content back at some point before 2024 if Disney buys Comcast out of Hulu before then (which seems to be on track to happen). So Comcast may find a solution for premium content on Peacock before 2024, or it may not.
Jeff Shell: Visionary or Fiduciary?
If Comcast is not sold on Shell’s vision to solving for Peacock’s shortcomings with a new streaming service, then what will Shell do? What is Shell incentivized to do?
Jeff Shell has not built a career as a digital media visionary. So, we can reasonably assume he is not incentivized like WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who has a $49MM stock award over the next three years.
In other words, Jeff Shell is not NBCU’s digital visionary executive - that role falls to Comcast’s Direct-to-Consumer Chairman, Matt Strauss. This leaves Shell as a well-compensated, C-Suite fiduciary executive with his choices constrained by the shortcomings of his predecessor’s objectives, and by what Comcast wants to do with NBCU.
How invested is Comcast in keeping NBCU? As I wrote two weeks ago, one signal is they seem to be more invested in scaling their Flex platform software than in Peacock.
We do not have a complete picture nor complete information. But with the Fiduciary vs. Visionary framework (and terrific reporting from Claire Atkinson and Jessica Toonkel), we can at least surface key objectives, and we can surface additional evidence of whether they are incentivized to solve the problems around those objectives.
The evidence, although incomplete, suggests NBCU executives are not incentivized to solve for Peacock’s problems, alone So, we need to shift our focus on Comcast for how they are going to figure out the future of NBCU and Peacock, and pay attention to what they say and do.
Notably, this is the same question on which the WarnerMedia-NBCU merger speculation has been focused. With Peacock at a crossroads, maybe it’s time to imagine an NBCU spin-off from Comcast.