Coronavirus has forced Quibi, NBC Peacock to change their plans at launch

Just two short months ago, the executives behind all the much-hyped subscription streaming services launching this year sounded bullish on their prospects for success.

Then coronavirus hit America. Now our “new normal” changes the launch script for the first two new offerings of 2020, Quibi and NBC Peacock.

Quibi, the brainchild of former HP CEO Meg Whitman and former DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg, launched on April 6. The price: $4.99 per month with ads, $7.99 for ad-free. The pitch: “quick bites” (hence the name) under 10 minutes long that people can watch on their commute, on the toilet, or at any moment when they have time to kill. That premise looked unique in the now-very-crowded streaming wars, and helped Quibi raise $1.75 billion venture funding before launch.

There’s just one problem now: Quibi launched only on smartphones. Amid coronavirus, streaming hours are way up, but most of us are at home, streaming on a television or computer, not on our phones. The New York Times last week, using data from SimilarWeb and AppTopia, noted the trend: Websites up big, apps not so much.

Now Quibi is facing calls to hurry up and get its service onto connected televisions, something it is likely working on. “We had always planned to be able to cast to your TV,” Whitman told CNBC this week. “We’ll eventually get there, but it was never a part of the launch. If we had known about COVID, maybe it would have been.”

Maybe it should have been. Nonetheless, Quibi says it had 1.7 million downloads in its first week. Disney+ got 10 million signups in its first day when it launched in November, but that’s not a completely fair comparison. Then again, whether Katzenberg and Whitman thought of it this way or not, Quibi is competing for share of wallet with all the paid streaming options out there, which includes giants like Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

NBCUniversal’s Peacock has a different coronavirus problem, and it’s one that is harder to fix.

Peacock soft-launched on April 15 just for existing Comcast Xfinity customers. (The premium tier is free for Comcast subscribers; for the rest of us, it’s $4.99 with ads, $9.99 for ad-free.) The original full launch date to the public was July 15, and for now, NBCUniversal says that’s still the date.

But the July launch was built around the Tokyo Olympics, and NBC’s live sports rights were seen as one of the biggest draws for Peacock. Now the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to July 2021, and there are no live sports happening either.

NBC is already getting pressure to move the full Peacock launch up sooner, because why wait? But even if it does move up the launch, the lack of sports won’t change.

Still, Peacock has a lot to offer thanks to NBC’s huge content library: shows like “SNL,” “30 Rock,” “Parks & Rec,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood,” and “This Is Us,” and a ton of movies including “E.T.,” “Evan Almighty,” and the whole “Jurassic Park” franchise. (It won’t get “The Office” until January 2021.)

So on one hand, it might behoove Peacock to just wait, in the hopes that it could build anticipation if the Comcast (CMCSA) customers who get an early look have good things to say. On the other hand, now could be the time for NBC to strike while the iron is hot, with everyone quarantining at home and streaming a lot of content.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — “Tom Hanks” Episode 1783Q — Pictured in this screengrab: (l-r) Anchor Colin Jost, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, and Michael Che during Weekend Update on Saturday, April 11, 2020 — (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Overall, the jury is still out on whether right now is a good time or tough time to launch a new streaming service.

Competition is incredibly stiff: Netflix still wears the crown (and boasts “Tiger King” and “Ozark,” both trending right now); Disney+ has amassed 50 million subscribers and already looks like an incumbent; and Disney-owned Hulu is earning buzz now that it has added the entire FX library. But for the time being, non-essential American workers are working from home, and appear to be watching a lot more streaming television than usual. (Roku says streaming hours in the first quarter were up an eye-popping 49%.)

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