Peacock hands-on: NBC’s streaming service isn’t must-see TV yet – CNET

NBC’s new Peacock streaming service is currently in “sneak peek” mode, with no original programming and limited availability — only Comcast subscribers with certain TV devices can watch it. I live in Comcast country and have an Xfinity Flex streaming box, so I took Peacock out for a stroll, er, strut, to get a feel for its layout and content. Despite the low price (free) and more than 15,000 hours worth of TV shows and movies, I’m not sure how much I’ll use it. There’s just not enough compelling content available yet.

Like

  • It’s free
  • Fewer ads than Hulu
  • Offers current news and late-night shows

Don’t Like

  • Missing new, original shows and many marquee catalog titles
  • Very few movies from the past decade
  • Trending section not a good fit for TVs

Peacock’s full launch will happen in July, but even then it will be more limited than originally planned. The coronavirus has put a halt to TV production across the board, including Peacock’s originals, and pushed the Olympics back a year to the summer of 2021, delaying Peacock’s exclusive coverage of the games. Without those hooks there’s little incentive for viewers like me to add Peacock to their stable of streaming services.

Even as a free addition to my Flex box, Peacock struggles against other streaming options. It does seem to show fewer ads than Hulu, but Hulu has so much more to watch. For now the only use I can think of for Peacock is to show my kids some old SNL sketches or watch a few old movies. In order to stand out from the streaming pack, Peacock needs its own shows. Or perhaps more importantly, it needs to become the home to timeless NBC classics like The Office, which won’t hit Peacock until 2021. In the meantime, of course, you can watch it on Netflix

What’s trending (according to Peacock)

Right away, Peacock looks different than Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, the three streaming services I regularly use. Instead of being presented with a grid of thumbnails I was dumped right into a video of what Peacock deems is trending. The first was celebrity salad: a Today show clip with Carson Daly providing an update of Brad Pitt serving as the weatherman for John Krasinski’s Some Good News show. The next day it was Jimmy Fallon’s at-home monologue from the previous night.

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Matt Elliott/CNET

The top video in the Trending section plays automatically — you cannot fast-forward or rewind, but if you hit the down arrow you’ll move to the next video in the list. The selection runs from SNL sketches and Fallon skits to NBC news and sports updates, and also includes stuff that’s not even close to “trending,” like random scenes from old NBC shows. I loved Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy and the gang from 30 Rock, but I don’t ever sit down on my couch wanting to watch an arbitrary clip from a 10-year-old sitcom. 

Read more: NBC’s Peacock looks like a streamified version of Comcast X1 cable

As the first section you see each time you open Peacock, Trending seems like it would be a better fit on a phone, where you could watch a news update or two during your commute or while waiting in line for lunch. Currently, Peacock lacks a mobile app. It also lacks multiple user profiles and 4K streaming. Peacock says that stuff is all coming in July. 

Channels aren’t what you think

From Trending you can navigate to the Channels and Browse sections of the app. Channels look kind of like a cable box grid guide, but instead of networks and cable channels, you get rows curated around a show or theme. I was disappointed to find that most of it wasn’t new. The first channel, SNL Vault, shows a mix of Saturday Night Live sketches from over the years. Two others — Fallon Tonight and Seth Myers Now — are filled with bits from past seasons, not Fallon’s current at-home broadcasts. 

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The Office channel is labeled as Office Shorts and shows a scene from one episode here followed by a scene from another episode there, which is not how I like to digest my Office reruns. The Hell’s Kitchen channel does show complete episodes, and I found complete episodes of Ghost Hunters on the Out of this World channel. The rest of the channels, 21 in all, focus mainly on true crime, reality TV and Spanish-language shows.

There is a pair of news channels in the mix, NBC News Now and Sky News, which actually show current news reports from each. Despite not being live, however, these channels do not let you fast-forward or rewind.

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Browsing deep into NBC’s back catalog

The Browse section is the most similar in layout to other streaming services, and it should be the home page instead of Trending. There’s a big carousel of “hero” tiles at the top and rows of thumbnails below, labeled Continue Watching, Peacock Picks, Comfort TV, Coming Soon, Rotten Tomatoes Approved Movies and so on. 

The best shows available now are 30 Rock and Parks and Rec, and you get all seven seasons of each. You also get the complete run of older shows, including Cheers, Frasier, House and Monk. For some shows, however, you get only a recent handful of seasons. Peacock provides the last five seasons of Saturday Night Live and the last eight seasons of Law and Order (but all 21 seasons of Law and Order: SVU). It’s the reverse for other shows — you get the first three seasons of 21 Jump Street and The Carol Burnett Show.

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Until its original shows such as Brave New World and reboots of old favorites such as Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster are able to move from the Coming Soon belt and to the top of the screen, Peacock’s offerings are less than compelling. Also conspicuously missing are NBC stalwarts Friends, Seinfeld and The Office, whose rights are currently owned by competing streaming services.

In the Movies category, you’ll find roughly 400 titles but very few from the past decade. (Think Alfred Hitchcock rather than Bong Joon-ho.) In the Top Rated belt, there are a dozen movies but none from the past 14 years, with the most recent being 2006’s Children of Men. You’ll find tons of classics, however, from Psycho and Rear Window to E.T. and Jurassic Park. 

Read more: Netflix alternatives: The 10 best free movie streaming services

For titles that aren’t obvious classics, Peacock helpfully displays Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Movie thumbnails include a red-tomato, “fresh” rating but do not display a score if the movie is rated “rotten.” You can see the score for any movie with a Rotten Tomatoes rating, good or bad, after selecting it.

peacock-browse-movies-1

Fewer ads than Hulu

I put Peacock’s ad load up against the ad-supported, $6 version of Hulu and found that Hulu forces me to spend more time watching commercials. For a 22-minute episode of Parks and Rec, Peacock served up three ad breaks of varying lengths and no ad before the episode. In one test, I got a 20-second ad, a 45-second ad and a 30-second ad. The next episode, the three ads were 10, 60 and 60 seconds in length. On Hulu, I had to sit through three, 60-second ad breaks and a 15-second ad before the episode started. 

With movies, both Peacock and Hulu do not interrupt you once the popcorn is popped, the lights are dimmed and the show has started. You’ll need to sit through an ad before the movie begins, but that’s not any different than in a theater. Peacock’s ads before a movie, however, are longer. Before Do the Right Thing? 115 seconds of ads. Before Reservoir Dogs? 130 seconds of ads. Before Psycho? 65 seconds of ads. On Hulu, the ads before movies lasted 20 or 40 seconds. 

If given the choice, I’d take shorter ad breaks during TV shows over a shorter ad before a movie. The ad advantage goes to Peacock. 

If you want to get an ad-free experience Peacock will sell you one for a $4.99 monthly upgrade fee, but I can’t imagine many users will like Peacock enough at this point to actually pay for it.

Read more: Peacock vs. Hulu: Which TV streaming service is best for you?

Control: Blind fast-forward and rewind, solid voice

Getting around Peacock was easy, but I wish there was a setting to change my default home screen to Browse rather than Trending. I also like fast-forwarding and rewinding better on Hulu, which lets you use the arrow buttons to skip forward and back while providing thumbnails above the timeline to help you keep track of where you are. With Peacock, you aren’t given the thumbnails, which makes it harder to navigate to a specific scene. Peacock blindly fast-forwards and rewinds in 2x, 6x, 12x, 24x, 48x and 96x increments.

The voice function on the Flex remote works well. Press down the microphone button and you can search by title, actor, director, genre and so on. Searches take you out of the Peacock app, however, and pop you in the Xfinity Flex app. When you click on a free title from the search results page, you’ll see a “Play on Peacock” button to open Peacock and start watching.

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This Peacock is missing a few feathers

With the general lack of new content, it’s easy to see why NBCUniversal opted for a soft launch only for Xfinity subscribers. Since it doesn’t cost anything and the ad load is reasonable, Peacock is worth checking out if you are already an Xfinity customer — particularly if your tastes tend toward older movies.

With the world at a standstill that has caused innumerable delays and cancellations, originals and Olympics coverage will need to wait. The silver lining for Peacock? When it launches in July it will still offer a free tier to non-Comcast subscribers, and given the financial stress of the recession it could easily be a hit. If nothing else it will be another solid free streaming option with plenty of room to grow.

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