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NBC's streaming service Peacock will be free with ads July 15

But you'll have to pay $5 or $10 for an all-access pass to every one of Peacock's original shows and other premium video.

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Parks and Recreation is one of the most popular library titles that Peacock will stream. 

NBC

PeacockNBCUniversal's coming streaming-video service, will be free with advertising when it rolls out nationally July 15 coinciding with the summer Olympics, the company said Thursday at a star-studded unveiling. But to unlock Peacock's so-called "Premium" selection, with all its original programming and double the library, you need to pay either $5 a month to stream with advertising or $10 to go ad free. (Keep reading below for the detailed differences between Peacock Free and Premium.)

With a free service that bucks the trend of other services launching in the so-called streaming wars, Comcast's NBC is pinning its hopes on making money mostly from ads running against its library of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, high-profile movies from its studios, and originals that include a bunch of reboots (and reboots of reboots).

If you're a Comcast or Cox customer, you basically score a $5 discount: You watch with an ad-supported Premium membership free, or pay $5 to updgrade to the ad-free version. NBC said it's working on more partnerships to offer this discount to a wider array of consumers. 

By comparison, Netflix, which has no ads, offers its cheapest tier at $9 a month, while its most popular plan is $13. Apple TV Plus is $5 a month, Disney Plus is $7 a month, and HBO Max will be $15 a month when it launches in May. CBS All Access charges $6 for its tier with advertising and $10 for the ad-free version. (Note: CBS is the parent company of CNET.)

And if you're a Comcast customer, you get to start streaming three months early. The service launches April 15 to Comcast's Xfinity X1 cable customers and its Flex streaming customers. International expansion will come, NBC said, but it didn't specify a timeline. The news was part of the Comcast unit's unveiling of Peacock in a two-hour presentation at NBC's storied 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York. 

The decision to make Peacock free puts the service closer to the music-streaming model used by Spotify, which offers a free tier with ads as an on-ramp for paying subscribers. Though free, ad-supported streaming video has plenty of precedent. The trend among streaming services lately -- especially those with high-quality programming like Peacock's -- is to eschew ads and put everything behind a paywall. 

Peacock is NBC's combatant in the so-called streaming wars, a seven-month window when media giants and tech titans are releasing a raft of new streaming services to take on Netflix. More than just skirmishes between megacorporations, these competitive battles will determine not only who shapes the future of television as streaming becomes the norm but also how many services you'll have to pay for to watch your favorite shows.

And in the case of Peacock, it means even traditional TV networks and cable companies like Comcast are placing big bets that they'll never be able to turn the tide of cord-cutting. But Comcast is angling Peacock so that it's gentle on the decline of traditional TV, with a strategy that puts advertising front and center and projections that Peacock will have about half the viewers that rivals like Disney Plus expect. 

So what're the main differences between the free Peacock catalog and the Premium one? 

The free library features about 7,500 hours of video, including: 

  • Next-day access to current seasons of broadcast shows in their first season (known as freshmen series).
  • Select episodes of marquee Peacock originals (but not full seasons).
  • Curated Peacock streaming genre channels such as SNL Vault, Family Movie Night and Olympic Profiles.
  • Complete classic series and popular movies.
  • Curated daily news and sports programming, including the Olympics.
  • Spanish-language content.

With the Premium membership, you basically get an all-access pass. It offers 15,000 hours of video, and you get: 

  • Full seasons of Peacock originals. 
  • Next-day access to current seasons of returning broadcast shows.
  • Early access to late-night talk shows, so you don't have to stay up as late to watch Jimmy Fallon (which will stream at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET) or Seth Meyers.
  • Additional sports, like Premier League soccer.

It's likely that NBC strategized a free tier based on its experience with Hulu, which until last year was partly owned by Comcast's NBC. Hulu is $6 a month with ads and $12 a month without, but it began its life as a free, ad-supported site to stream shows. It's also possible NBC learned a lesson from Seeso, a paid, comedy-focused streaming service it launched in 2014 and that folded less than three years later. 

Peacock's ad-supported tiers will have five minutes of ads per hour, the company said. Traditional networks' ad load can reach up to 15 minutes an hour. And Peacock also won't repeat the same commercial over and over, it added. It'll include things like "pause ads" that take over the full screen when the viewer pauses the video and "binge ads" that'll sponsor a fourth episode of a program without other ads if you watch three episodes. 

NBC expects Peacock will hit 30 million to 35 million active accounts by 2024. By comparison, Disney's streaming service Disney Plus, which launched in November, expects to have 60 million and 90 million paying subscribers by roughly the same time. NBC also expects Peacock to stop losing money in 2024, after the company has spent $2 billion across 2020 and 2021 investing in it. 

Originally published Jan. 16. 
Update, Jan 17: Adds more details and context.