As the lockdown has sent streaming-video usage skyrocketing, one big question has loomed: how will ViacomCBS make CBS All Access relevant to more than ardent Star Trek fans in a suddenly far more competitive and strategically vital sector?
For months now, ViacomCBS executives have been promising a “house of brands” revamp of its streaming strategy, with three tiers of online services: free, broad-pay and premium pay.
During the company’s May earnings call, CEO Bob Bakish pulled back the veil a bit, promising to ““capitalize on our position across free and pay, adding substantial content assets and user experience enhancements supported by marketing to serve consumers with a robust, differentiated suite of linked streaming offerings.”
Those would include in some fashion the company’s premium service, Showtime, its broadcast network, CBS, various news and sports online networks, free ad-supported Pluto, Viacom’s family of basic cable stalwarts, and movie studio Paramount. The media conglomerate also promised an international expansion.
A significant revamp of CBS All Access certainly is in order. CBS All Access launched in 2014, in a very different time and with little market interest. It got a boost in 2017, when it added NFL games and launched its first original Star Trek show, Discovery.
Last year, after CBS and Viacom re-merged, CBS All Access added Nickelodeon children’s programming, an expansion well-timed ahead of the pandemic.
But the core of the CBS All Access service has remained limited: live streams from the network’s various divisions, back episodes of current CBS shows and hundreds of older series such as Cheers, Mission: Impossible, Perry Mason, Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone, Taxi, and I Love Lucy. Late night, reality and other programming, plus some related online content are on offer. And of course, there’s lots more Star Trek, led by the well-received Picard, featuring Patrick Stewart in a twilight-of-the-gods reprise of his iconic role.
All that has boosted CBS All Access to 13.5 million subscribers, a nice number in the old days of streaming. But we’re no longer in the old days. Streaming video has changed dramatically the past six months, including:
> Netflix added nearly 16 million subscribers last quarter, pushing it to 183 million worldwide, roughly 13.5 times larger than CBS All Access.
> Amazon Prime now has 150 million subscribers, all of whom get free access to Prime Video (though previously, only about half took advantage of that access).
Disney Plu has grabbed 50 million subscribers since it launched in November, and is now expanding internationally.
Apple TV Plus, despite a more subdued November debut, still has more than 33 million subscribers, and reportedly is now in the market for library content that it previously eschewed. TV Plus also just bought a Sony film, the Tom Hanks WWII drama Greyhound, for $70 million. For comparison, Bloomberg reported that that CBS All Access content budget this year totaled $800 million.
> HBO Max launches this week, featuring AT&T/Warner Media’s version of a house of brands approach, built atop HBO’s storied library, bolstered with Warner Bros. and MGM films, CNN, Turner Broadcasting sports and series and Warner TV series including Friends.
> Fox bought Pluto competitor Tubi for $440 million, after selling its stake in Hulu to Disney, which is reshaping that service with FX content and an attractive streaming bundle that also includes Disney Plus and ESPN Plus.
> NBCUniversal, which previously bought ad-supported Xumo, scooped up movie-centric service Vudu from Walmart to pair with Fandango. And NBCU’s freemium take on the house of brands approach, Peacock, goes wide in July after debuting last month for Comcast broadband subscribers
“These events… indicate streaming video has hit the inflection point between streaming as an early adopter/fast follower behavior or a niche add-on to traditional TV and streaming as a mainstream element of the media industry,” Forrester principal analyst Jim Nail wrote.
Amid all that, CBS All Access must be a lot smarter if it wants to attract anyone outside the Star Trek universe.
It’s the latest rejiggering challenge for Bakish, who first made his name transforming Viacom’s international cable channels, then doing the same to the rest of Viacom as interim CEO, where he focused on six core brands and made a string of digital acquisitions.
Majority shareholder Shari Redstone was so pleased that she gave Bakish the permanent CEO job first at Viacom, and then at ViacomCBS.
Now Bakish must reorient a polyglot batch of free, subscription and premium networks into a more rational and comprehensive offering that can succeed amid the streaming universe’s new realities.
The company has remained relatively mum on details, but executives have signaled that the new CBS All Access will include content from MTV, BET, Smithsonian Network, Comedy Central, the Paramount Network, and still more Nickelodeon shows.
They’re also adding in 100 Paramount films, including Oscar winners such as The Godfather, Terms of Endearment and An Inconvenient Truth, along with other favorites such as Patriot Games, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and, of course, Star Trek movies.
It’s not clear yet how the coming revamp will incorporate content from Showtime, Pluto, CBS News 24/7 and CBS Sports, among other assets.
ViacomCBS is also aggressively pursuing some high-profile projects. It won what the Hollywood Reporter called a “massive bidding war” for the expensive rights to turn one of the feel-good hits of the lockdown--John Krasinski’s Some Good News webcast—into a multi-platform addition to its channels.
The revamped show—Krasinski will remain as an exec producer and have some on-air presence but no longer host—will get its first window of distribution on CBS All Access, before moving to “a number of the company’s linear networks.”
It was one of the first deals for new CBS Entertainment Group president George Cheeks since replacing Joe Ianniello. Importantly, Comedy Central Productions took an ownership stake and will produce the show and related short-form digital material.
That Krasinski’s show ended up with ViacomCBS isn’t surprising: His Amazon Prime series, Jack Ryan, is produced by Paramount TV, and his hit horror feature, A Quiet Place, was distributed by Paramount Pictures.
But the new deal demonstrates the potential power and reach that ViacomCBS can muster when it’s focused. It’s telling, however, that the needed focus isn’t yet razor sharp.
For instance, in March, after the lockdown blocked theatrical release of The Lovebirds, Paramount sold the project to Netflix, where it just debuted.
Paramount previously unloaded Martin Scorsese’s hugely expensive opus, The Irishman, as well as J.J. Abrams project The Cloverfield Paradox and a planned Beverly Hills Cop sequel, among other projects.
As well, Netflix partnered with Paramount to finance and make Star Trek: Discovery, in exchange for that show’s rights everywhere but the U.S. market.
The Netflix deals have allowed Paramount to dodge risk, while giving Netflix noteworthy additions to its library.
But it seems unlikely that risk-reduction strategy remains in place after the debut of a revamped CBS All Access.
As a smaller media company competing against trillion-dollar giants, the last thing Bakish and ViacomCBS can afford is anything but a laser focus maximizing every corner of the combined company. All Access will have to truly live up to its name to thrive in this new era.
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