Hoping Peacock streams films the pandemic kept from theaters? Not so fast

With cinemas shut down, Peacock's owner puts movies like Trolls World Tour online to rent. But don't expect them to come in a Hamilton-like surprise to the streaming service.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
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Peacock, a new streaming service from Comcast's NBCUniversal, launches in the US next week, but if you're hoping it will bring you some surprise new movies to stream during your coronavirus lockdown, don't hold your breath. Peacock won't likely deliver any Hamilton-style launches along the lines of Disney Plus -- at least, not soon. 

"Certainly nothing near term," Matt Strauss, the chairman of Peacock, said in an interview when asked if movies like Trolls World Tour or The King of Staten Island should be expected to stream on Peacock soon, even as Comcast's movie studios have brought those movies online in other ways.

As the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered cinemas and forced people to entertain themselves at home, demand has surged for movies and shows you can watch online. And that's made media companies braver about tinkering with the rigid rules of big-screen movies releases, like how long flicks are exclusively in theaters and how swiftly they can offer them online. Studios owned by the same company as Peacock have been among the most aggressive in moving some of their big-screen films online instead. 

DreamWorks Animation's Trolls World Tour was one of the first big-screen movies to test its fortunes in the coronavirus pandemic by letting people rent the movie online exactly as it released the flick in a smattering of theaters. Universal's The King of Staten Island followed in its footsteps weeks later. Peacock, DreamWorks Animation and Universal Pictures are all owned by Comcast, which also owns Focus Features and TV networks like NBC, USA, Bravo and Syfy. 

Trolls World Tour ended up being a home-viewing smash, one that infuriated theater owners because they felt cut out of the process, despite a lockdown that has shut virtually all theaters. Cinema chain AMC even vowed it would ban all Universal movies from its screens. 

But streaming services, too, have been getting more assertive in bringing new, big-screen movies to their homebound subscribers. Disney Plus, for example, pulled forward the release of Hamilton, the filmed version of the hit Broadway musical, to stream more than a year earlier than its planned theatrical date. A Hamilton bump that weekend boosted downloads of Disney Plus' mobile app 72% in the US. And Friday, Apple TV Plus will stream Greyhound, a World War II battleship drama starring Tom Hanks, after the movie's theatrical plans were sunk last month by the virus.

However, Strauss said Peacock wasn't built as the streaming delivery arm of NBCUniversal's programming quite the same way some other services are. 

"We did not call this service NBC Plus. We called it Peacock. In many ways, that was by design -- yes, pay homage to NBCUniversal but not be limited to just NBCUniversal content," Strauss said. 

A bigger library, a free trial

Instead, Peacock has ramped up its work licensing content, Strauss said. The coronavirus disrupted production on many of its original shows and derailed Peacock's plans to launch in tandem with the Summer Olympics, now delayed until next year. But dealmaking hasn't slowed down, he said.

Peacock will have closer to 20,000 hours of programming available at launch, Strauss said, after the company said in January that it would offer about 15,000 hours. Peacock revealed deals with A+E and ViacomCBS to stream some of their programming, for example. (Note: ViacomCBS is CNET's parent company.) 

The service will also have a seven-day free trial offer standard for anyone to try Peacock's premium tiers that let you watch the full catalog. 

Peacock will launch July 15 with three levels of service: a limited free tier with advertising that blocks off some of the library, and two premium tiers that are basically all-access passes to everything on the service. A premium tier with advertising costs $5 a month or $50 a year, and you can upgrade to an ad-free version for $10 a month or $100 a year. 

But Peacock wants its premium service bundled with other video subscriptions you may already have. The company is still in active discussions toward deals like those it already has with Comcast, its parent company, and Cox Communications for their cable customers can access Peacock Premium at no extra cost. 

It's not the first Peacock perk Comcast customers enjoyed. Customers of Comcast's Xfinity cable-video service and its Flex streaming-video service have already been watching a sneak-peek version of Peacock since April. 

Strauss has been impressed by the early response by those Comcast customers, he said. Within 60 days of Peacock's soft launch to Comcast customers, Peacock exceeded the internal goals it aimed to reach by December, he said -- metrics like how much time spent per user, how often people return to the app or how many video selections they make. Peacock "might have lightning in a bottle," Strauss said, but he declined to give specific numbers for any of those metrics.

Peacock is staying mum on other details too. 

Virus-disrupted theatrical movies aren't set to arrive on Peacock in the near term, but Trolls World Tour at least will stream on Peacock sometime, eventually. Peacock just won't say when. The timing of when the Fast and the Furious movies, a franchise with its own popular fan base, coming to Peacock is a mystery too for now.