Peacock Enters Uncharted Waters by Streaming N.F.L. Playoff Game

On Saturday night, NBCUniversal will make media history. For the first time, a National Football League playoff game — this one featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins — will appear exclusively on a streaming service.

And at NBCUniversal’s offices in New York and Los Angeles, executives are all too aware of the high stakes for the company and particularly its streaming service, Peacock.

“There’s a lot riding on this game,” Kelly Campbell, Peacock’s president, said in an interview. “We feel that pressure.”

The pressure is coming from many fronts. There’s a technical challenge: First-round N.F.L. playoff games regularly draw audiences of nearly 30 million people. Can Peacock, a service that has a much smaller subscriber base than rivals like Netflix, Disney+ and Max, handle a crushing traffic surge without suffering an embarrassing technological snafu?

There’s also a question of whether it will upset viewers: For decades, playoff games have been free to watch on network television. Though the game will air free on local television in the Kansas City and Miami markets, the only way for anyone else to watch it is to hand over $6, the monthly price for Peacock’s cheapest pricing tier.

And then there is the vital business issue: NBCUniversal executives paid more than $100 million for the game, and they’re doing it to get more people to check out Peacock. Will they be able to keep them subscribing, month after month, to a streaming service that lost nearly $3 billion last year? New subscribers could cancel right after the game.

“Certainly with this kind of investment, we would like to have a lot of people sign up and sample us,” said Mark Lazarus, the chairman of the NBCUniversal media group. “And then we’d like to get them to use the product a lot, and for a long time.”

Unlike many television genres, sporting events still air primarily on traditional network TV, and draw enormous ratings. Major sports leagues have dabbled with streaming — Thursday night N.F.L. games are on Amazon Prime Video — but they have not made a full leap yet. The Saturday night game will be the most prominent sporting event to stream exclusively to date.

NBCUniversal executives will not go so far as to call the game a make-or-break moment for Peacock. But it could come awfully close.

Peacock was a late entrant to the so-called streaming wars — it debuted in the summer of 2020 — and it is available only in the United States. Most media analysts are skeptical that Peacock will ever be much of a competitor to Netflix and Disney+, the two largest streaming services. (Netflix has 247 million subscribers, and Peacock has 30 million.)

Still, Peacock is growing. The streaming service picked up 10 million subscribers last year, and it features the back library of shows like “The Office” and “Law & Order: SVU,” as well as new episodes of Bravo shows like the “Housewives” franchise and “Vanderpump Rules.”

Peacock has also seen improved engagement. In November, the service accounted for 1.3 percent of television viewing time in the United States, more than Max, Paramount+ and Apple TV+, according to Nielsen. (Giants like YouTube and Netflix dwarfed everyone — YouTube had 9 percent of viewing time, and Netflix stood at 7.4 percent.)

Unlike Netflix, Peacock has also made live sports a backbone of its service. During one weekend in September, Peacock streamed 51 live sporting events, including seven simultaneously.

An N.F.L. playoff game, however, is a much bigger proposition. And technical problems during live events are nearly as old as streaming itself.

Years ago, HBO’s streaming service regularly stopped working during major episodes for hit shows like “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective.” Last year, Netflix tried to premiere a special episode of “Love Is Blind” — only for it to crash, forcing the company to stream it a day after its scheduled debut.

This is one reason NBCUniversal executives, along with more than 1,000 people on its tech team, have been preparing for Saturday’s game since May.

For several months, NBCUniversal senior executives have had regular meetings to discuss whether the company is prepared “from a technological point of view,” Mr. Lazarus said. He said the blame for any hiccup during the game — even if it was caused by a cable provider — would probably fall on “our shoulders.”

There was also a recent dress rehearsal. On Dec. 23, Peacock exclusively streamed a regular-season game between the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Chargers.

Mr. Lazarus said he had sat by his phone during the Bills-Chargers game hoping it wouldn’t ring, because that would signal a problem. It never rang. The game peaked with 5.7 million concurrent devices using Peacock, the company said, the most ever for the service.

Ms. Campbell, the Peacock president, said the company was preparing for “five or six times” that number for the playoff game — not just for the many people who will be watching football but also for anyone who happens to be watching anything else on Peacock on Saturday night.

A big influx of viewers creates another concern for Peacock executives: How do you handle hundreds of thousands of sign-ups in a concentrated period? The peak period for people signing up during the Dec. 23 game was a 10-minute window right before and after kickoff, a Peacock spokeswoman said.

Toward the end of Saturday’s game, in a push similar to one for a lead-out show after the Super Bowl, NBCUniversal will begin directing viewers to “Ted,” a new Peacock series spun off from the Seth MacFarlane movies about a foul-mouthed teddy bear. Likewise, “The Traitors,” the Peacock reality show hosted by Alan Cumming, which debuted as a modest hit last year, will begin streaming this weekend.

Whether those shows, and the entire library of content at Peacock, are enough to keep millions of people subscribing remains an open question.

And even if many in the media industry are skeptical, Ms. Campbell said she was confident that this would not be Peacock’s last chance to try to persuade would-be subscribers to sign up. After all, she said, the Summer Olympics, which will be broadcast on NBC and stream on Peacock, is right around the corner.

“All of this prep and energy that’s going into this, it’s not a one-and-done — like, OK, we did all that and that’s work wasted,” she said. “This will advance Peacock’s abilities into the future.”

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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