NBCUniversal announces plans for a free streaming service alongside executive shuffle

Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia are also prepping standalone streaming services delivered via the internet in response to rapidly changing consumer viewing habits.
NBC's studios at Rockefeller Center in New York on May 10, 2017.
NBC's studios at Rockefeller Center in New York on May 10, 2017.Mary Altaffer / AP file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Claire Atkinson

NBCUniversal is preparing to launch a global, direct-to-consumer streaming service in early 2020, adding to a growing number of digital offerings from major media companies meant to cater to consumers that have turned away from traditional TV.

The service will show advertising and be free of charge for subscribers who have NBC channels as part of their programming bundles in the U.S. and in major international markets, the company announced on Monday. Customers of Comcast Cable and Sky TV, which is roughly 52 million people, will also have access to the service.

Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia are also prepping standalone streaming services delivered via the internet in response to rapidly changing consumer viewing habits.

"Our new service will be different than those presently in the market and it will be built on the company’s strengths, with NBCUniversal’s great content and the technology expertise, broad scale and the wide distribution of Comcast Cable and Sky," NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said in a statement.

NBCUniversal’s service will also be available to cord-cutters — people who don’t pay for cable or satellite TV bundles — for a subscription fee, and there will be an ad-free version of the service. The new streaming service will carry live events including news and sports and will acquire third-party programming to supplement content from NBCUniversal’s own library and original programming.

The company noted that it will continue to license its content to other platforms, but noted that it will be "retaining rights to certain titles for its new service." Content exclusivity has become a growing consideration for companies that spent years enjoying revenue from selling streaming rights to other platforms such as Netflix.

So-called "over the top" viewership via the internet is expected to reach 205 million people in the U.S. in 2019, according to digital media analysis firm eMarketer.

The announcement of the streaming service included a shake-up of the NBCUniversal executive team.

Bonnie Hammer, who had been the head of cable entertainment, will be in charge of the streaming service and was named chairman of direct-to-consumer and digital enterprises for NBCUniversal.

Hammer's digital credentials include overseeing production companies already making shows for Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Hammer is also a board member of eBay and Barry Diller’s digital conglomerate, IAC. She will also gain control of NBC’s digital enterprises group, which houses outside stakes in companies such as Snap and Vox.

In addition to Hammer's new role, two top executives, Mark Lazarus and Jeff Shell, will oversee the company's content businesses.

NBCUniversal announced that Lazarus, currently the head of sports and TV stations, will now oversee cable entertainment channels as well as NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC, in addition to his previous duties. The news divisions had previously reported directly to Burke.

Shell, who currently runs the company's movie business, was named chairman of NBCUniversal Film and Entertainment and will add NBC Entertainment, its international division and Telemundo to his responsibilities.

Also on Monday, Burke told Variety in an interview that the firm is unlikely to sell its stake in Hulu anytime soon. When Fox concludes its asset sales to Disney, Disney will be the majority shareholder of the company, but Burke did not appear to be in any hurry to let Disney consolidate the asset.

“Disney would like to buy us out," Burke said. "I don’t think anything’s going to happen in the near term."

As for the management shake-up, Burke said he would be spending more time on Sky and needed a smaller reporting structure to ease decision making when it comes to where to sell NBC programming.

The promotion of Shell and Lazarus also sets up two potential successors to Burke, though he was clear that he was not planning to step down soon.

"I’m 60. It would be crazy for me to not start grooming people,” Burke said. “On the other hand, I’m not going anywhere.”