CBS All Ac­cess tries hip­ster route to blaze dig­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment trail

Le­gacy net­work at­tempts to strike dif­fi­cult bal­ance

Woonsocket Call - - ARTS - By STEVEN ZEITCHIK

NEW YORK – Kevin Wil­liamson, noted chron­i­cler of Pacey, Joey and the rest of the Cape­side gang, re­cently had an epiphany about his re­la­tion­ship with broad­cast tele­vi­sion.

“I was do­ing a lot of net­work and get­ting burned out on it,” said Wil­liamson, who two decades ago cre­ated the land­mark mil­len­nial hit “Daw­son’s Creek” on the WB and made a half-dozen other broad­cast series since. “I wanted some­thing that was stream­ing and pre­mium.”

The cre­ator got what he wished for – sort of. Wil­liamson’s new show, “Tell Me a Story,” pre­miered last week on a CBS plat­form. But it’s not on CBS, that mas­sively main­stream net­work of “CSI” and “The Big Bang The­ory.” And it lands far from the con­ven­tional bull’s-eye of those series.

“Tell me a Story” puts a dark, modern spin on clas­sic fairy tales, telling three par­al­lel genre-in­flected sto­ries about young peo­ple in cri­sis. Built into the glossy show is a heav­ily se­ri­al­ized com­po­nent – and plenty of drugs and sex. Mark Har­mon solv­ing naval crimes on “NCIS,” it isn’t.

Wil­liamson’s new show will play ex­clu­sively on a dig­i­tal ser­vice called CBS All Ac­cess. The plat­form is a unique crea­ture, a prod­uct of the coun­try’s most old­school – and old-skew­ing – broad­caster, try­ing to beat Net­flix at its own game.

Launched in 2014 but ramp­ing up its orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming in re­cent months, All Ac­cess seeks to walk a slip­pery line be­tween main­stream net­work and pre­mium-sub­scrip­tion tele­vi­sion. The ser­vice of­fers per­haps the best chance for CBS to tar­get the young view­ers who have largely avoided the net­work.

It also could turn into a tweener jumble that un­der­cuts CBS’ tra­di­tional brand with­out mak­ing in­roads for a new au­di­ence, leav­ing the com­pany spend­ing lots of money on pro­gram­ming for a stream­ing ser­vice to which no­body sub­scribes.

This is hardly an idle ex­per­i­ment. At stake in All Ac­cess is not just one com­pany’s model but also the fate of stream­ing it­self – whether it can be not just for the dis­rupters but also for the tra­di­tion­al­ists, whether the fu­ture of tele­vi­sion will be with those who’ve dom­i­nated it in the past. If All Ac­cess can build a crit­i­cal mass of sub­scribers, it will demon­strate that le­gacy net­works have found their way in the 21st cen­tury.

And if not? It could fur­ther re­in­force the the­ory of a rad­i­cal new era in tele­vi­sion, one in which ma­jor broad­cast­ers have been wholly re­placed by up­start en­ti­ties with di­rect ties to con­sumers, with lit­tle chance of ever turn­ing back the clock.

Tak­ing the binge gam­ble

On a re­cent af­ter­noon at his of­fice down­town, Marc De­Bevoise was de­bat­ing the mer­its of dif­fer­ent dis­tri­bu­tion ap­proaches. The All Ac­cess chief (of­fi­cial ti­tle: pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of All Ac­cess over­seer CBS In­ter­ac­tive) had mainly been re­leas­ing one episode at a time. That’s a very un­streamer-like ap­proach that nods more to All Ac­cess’ CBS roots, and De­Bevoise wasn’t sure it should al­ways re­main that way.

“We’re test­ing a show in de­vel­op­ment now that lends it­self more to the bing­ing model,” said the ex­ec­u­tive, a vet­eran of Starz who speaks with the quick as­sur­ance of an Ivy League MBA. “We may do more of that.”

De­cid­ing how to dis­sem­i­nate its con­tent is just one ques­tion with which the com­pany has grap­pled as it builds a new model and seeks to lure sub­scribers.

All Ac­cess cur­rently claims 2.5 mil­lion sub­scribers and aims for 4 mil­lion by next year. That num­ber is im­pres­sive, an­a­lysts say, given how most Amer­i­cans are not ac­cus­tomed to pay­ing ex­tra for CBS-branded con­tent. But ex­perts also note the fig­ure’s pal­tri­ness rel­a­tive to com­peti­tors. Net­flix, for in­stance, has more than 115 mil­lion sub­scribers glob­ally.

As a dig­i­tal ven­ture with deep pock­ets, All Ac­cess of­fers what ex­ec­u­tives de­scribe as the best of both worlds: the mus­cle and know-how of a broad­caster with the cre­ative risk-tak­ing of a streamer.

But its hy­brid na­ture has also yielded plenty of naysay­ing. Skep­tics – they in­clude some who’ve worked with the com­pany – ask whether All Ac­cess can cre­ate enough of a cool fac­tor to at­tract pay­ing sub­scribers, es­pe­cially while teth­ered to a cor­po­rate struc­ture, and brand, known for a tra­di­tional model of com­mer­cial view­er­ship.

“There’s no doubt that fol­low­ing the viewer to their de­vices is a good strat­egy, and that you need con­tent peo­ple can’t get any­where else to do that,” said Stephen Beck, the founder of New York-based con­sul­tancy cg42, which has con­ducted ex­ten­sive stud­ies on stream­ing and en­ter­tain­ment. “But All Ac­cess is try­ing to thread the nee­dle be­tween old and new in ways that bring a lot of chal­lenges,” he added. “Can you make peo­ple think you’re more than CBS while still be­ing CBS?”

CBS a decade ago chose to sit out Hulu, the dig­i­tal ven­ture of four other en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies, be­cause thenchief ex­ec­u­tive Les­lie Moonves was wor­ried about can­ni­bal­iz­ing prof­its from the busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with dis­cus­sions who was not au­tho­rized to talk about them pub­licly.

But that con­ser­vatism ended up hav­ing a weirdly cut­ting-edge ef­fect. When stream­ing fi­nally be­came more pop­u­lar, CBS had to build a ser­vice strong enough to stand in­de­pen­dently. All Ac­cess launched with a bevy of li­brary ti­tles – “Cheers” and “Cag­ney & Lacey,” “MacGyver” and “Perry Ma­son.” For a monthly fee of $5.99 (with ads) or $9.99 (ad-free) con­sumers could have ac­cess to these shows as well as news, NFL games and the Gram­mys. Ex­ec­u­tives soon added orig­i­nal series – the red meat of sub­scrip­tion ser­vices – to at­tract sub­scribers.

But the cre­ation of the ser­vice was, in a way, the easy part.

New series prove a chore

Try­ing to craft a stream­ing series, what with so many cre­ative av­enues and dead ends, is never easy. But it’s es­pe­cially hard for a le­gacy net­work like CBS. Af­ter all, if you’re not a broad­cast net­work but you’re also not sis­ter chan­nel Show­time – if you’re some­how be­tween them – what are you, re­ally?

All Ac­cess pro­grams have tried to steer that nar­row course – while com­ing maybe, just maybe, a lit­tle closer to Show­time.

“At a net­work, you’re try­ing to hit a tar­get you know ex­ists,” said Julie McNamara, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of orig­i­nal con­tent for All Ac­cess. “This is a to­tally other man­date. Peo­ple have choices, and we have to think ‘how can we make some­thing spe­cial they’ll pay for?’ It’s closer to Netlifx than CBS,” she added.

David Stapf, who runs CBS stu­dio op­er­a­tion that feeds many of the All Ac­cess shows – and also pro­duces series for CBS and stream­ers – says find­ing the right alchemy for an All Ac­cess show can be tricky.

“It’s very spe­cific to the project. I do think All Ac­cess shows are more se­ri­al­ized than CBS shows and, def­i­nitely, more ex­pen­sive,” he said.

The ser­vice cur­rently has seven orig­i­nal series, in­clud­ing “Star Trek: Dis­cov­ery,” the “Good Wife” spinoff “The Good Fight” and “Story,” as well as rock­etry ori­gin tale “Strange An­gel” and a karmic mys­tery named “One Dol­lar.” In de­vel­op­ment are at least two other “Trek” series, in­clud­ing one with Pa­trick Ste­wart, the orig­i­nal Jean-Luc Pi­card; the idea is to flog that fran­chise in the way Dis­ney does Mar­vel.

Michael Parmelee/CBS

A scene from CBS’ All Ac­cess “Tell Me a Story.”

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