NBC's decision to stream the NFL Wild Card game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins may stand as a pivotal moment in TV history.
The Saturday game, which the Chiefs won 26-7, was exclusively streamed in most of the country on NBCUniversal's direct-to-consumer service Peacock, which with 30 million subscribers has struggled to reach profitability.
Based on the preliminary ratings for the game, Peacock likely saw a surge in signups and first-time users. The game averaged 23 million viewers, up 6% from last year's prime-time AFC Wild Card game on NBC, according to Nielsen data. It's the largest-ever streaming audience for an NFL game. NBC is calling it the "most streamed event in U.S. history."
The figure includes the TV audience in Kansas City and Miami, where the match aired on NBC affiliates (every NFL game is available on broadcast stations in the local markets of the teams playing). The stream also was available on NFL+, the subscription app that streams games on mobile devices.
NBC said Peacock had its biggest day ever, peaking with 16.3 million concurrent users during the day. Peacock accounted for 30% of all U.S. internet usage during the game, which aired from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern. Nielsen data showed that 27.6 million viewers watched some portion of the game.
More data will be issued this week, but the early returns showed how easily the audience adapted to watching NFL playoff action through a streaming platform, a first for the league.
The transition has been apparent throughout the season as "Thursday Night Football" in its second season on Prime Video drew 11.86 million viewers, a 24% audience increase over last year, according to Nielsen. While some of that growth is attributed to more competitive games in the window, it also reflects how the public is adapting to watching live events on a streaming platform, typically the destination for scripted shows and movies.
Broadcast TV remains the foundation of the NFL's media rights deal, with CBS, NBC and ESPN carrying the bulk of the regular season and playoffs through 2032. But the NFL apparently is flexible when it comes to the platforms its media partners choose to use, especially if there is additional revenue involved.
NBC shelled out $110 million for the right to move Saturday's game to streaming, a steep price that was essentially an investment in raising the awareness of Peacock.
There were no reports of any major technical issues with streaming an event with such a large audience. NBC had a dry run during the regular season when it aired a contest in December between the Buffalo Bills and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Lee Berke, chief executive of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, believes similar moves are coming.
"If you’re a streaming service, you would want to acquire more events that drive millions of fans to subscribe to and retain your platform," Berke said. "If you’re the NFL, you would want to look at offering up more games to a highly competitive marketplace where the going price per game has now been established at $100 million."
While the bulk of the games will remain on the traditional TV platforms, Berke believes a streamed playoff game or two could become a part of the media landscape going forward.
The NFL has remained committed to linear television; its games now provide the only surefire mass audiences, enabling networks to charge mid- to high six-figure prices for commercials. But the league has been carefully following the migration of younger viewers to streaming and wants to be sure it's reaching them.
“We couldn’t be prouder of our partnership with Peacock and are thrilled with the results of the first-ever exclusively live streamed NFL playoff game,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. “To best serve our fans, we need to ensure games are available to them as their viewing habits change and this includes digital distribution as we continue to help shape the future of the sports and entertainment industry.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.