CBS All Access tries hipster route to blaze digital entertainment trail
Legacy network attempts to strike difficult balance
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.
A scene from CBS’ All Access “Tell Me a Story.”