How ViacomCBS Plans to Reinvent CBS All Access for the Streaming Era

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Thursday began the first of a two-part reboot for the five-year-old streamer

Michael Gibson/CBS

ViacomCBS began the reinvention of CBS All Access on Thursday when it added thousands of shows from Viacom networks. It’s the first step of a phased approach the company hopes will turn the 5-year-old streaming service into a more worthy competitor in the streaming space. The full rebranding of CBS All Access — complete with a brand-new name that has yet to be announced — won’t happen until early next year. But ViacomCBS didn’t want to wait that long to show consumers it could compete on the bigger streaming playing field that has materialized over the past year. Since last November, the space has added five newcomers. “That was going to take a period of time,” Marc DeBevoise, ViacomCBS’ chief digital officer, told TheWrap of the full rebrand, which will also feature a completely redesigned platform. But adding Viacom content into the service was a much quicker turnaround. “Our feeling was, ‘Why wait?’ We can do that (now). This service is highly functioning — millions of subscribers, low churn, full distribution already.” All Access added more than 3,500 episodes from Viacom networks BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and Smithsonian Channel on Thursday, along with a smaller redesign that incorporates hubs for the Viacom networks. “There’s going to be other stair-steps on the way to the early 2021 full relaunch,” DeBevoise added.
CBS All Access is adding Viacom network hubs
ViacomCBS will be both a rookie and one of the streaming game’s most veteran players. CBS All Access launched in 2014, well before the streaming gold rush began. But its subscriber numbers pale in comparison to some of its bulkier competitors. Netflix has more than 190 million, while Disney+ has gained nearly 60 million in its first half-year of operation. “It feels like the right time, because we’re seeing the growth accelerate. It may be partially COVID-19, partially just our own content timing,” DeBevoise says. “It just feels like we’re at the next inflection point.” While CBS All Access is getting a new look and name, the price won’t change. Currently, All Access charges $5.99 a month for limited commercials and $9.99 for an ad-free version. That pricing alone make a larger service more competitive among the other top players. DeBevoise said they’re already seeing growth among commercial-free subs, which now make up around 40% of the subscriber base. “As of now, we don’t think the price needs to change,” he said. “We’re happy with where we are.” ViacomCBS was initially hesitant to enter the so-called “Streaming Wars” by rolling all of its content into one, massive offering. Instead, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish appeared to want to stick with the company’s smaller services, which include the free PlutoTV and the niche offering BET+. Bakish’s stance was that the company was better off playing it both ways: Get incremental revenue from the smaller services while remaining open to licensing or selling content to the bigger streamers. Paramount has sold multiple films to Netflix in the last year, and Nickelodeon signed an output deal with Netflix in early February. Comedy Central’s “South Park” went to HBO Max in a licensing deal worth at least $500 million. Even after Bakish announced that ViacomCBS would be transforming All Access into a larger player, the company hasn’t stopped cutting deals. Paramount has sold movies including “Lovebirds” and an untitled time travel film with Ryan Reynolds to Netflix. ViacomCBS cut a licensing deal with Peacock that give NBCUniversal’s new streaming service old library content that includes exclusivity windows for Paramount classics like “The Godfather.” But DeBevoise contends that offering its library on a non-exclusive basis “doesn’t harm our business.” Even though Peacock will have exclusive periods on some Paramount films, DeBevoise compared the deal to studios’ traditional handling of movie rights. “The movie business is all about windowing, right?” ViacomCBS wouldn’t be the first streaming service to share content. Disney+ was able to get the vast majority of its Marvel Studios-produced films for the launch last November, though more recent hits like “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther” remain available on TNT due to pre-existing licensing deals. By hoarding everything for themselves, Disney, WarnerMedia and other streamers are willing to forgo an entire revenue stream, betting that enough customers will fork over a monthly fee to make up the difference. For example, Disney gave up $150 million in revenue last year by eliminating output deals. “There’s this narrative in the press that you have to keep everything exclusive, otherwise you’re doing nothing. We think that’s false. You have to keep the right or enough things exclusive,” DeBevoise argued. “Depending on the nature of the content, it doesn’t always fit to be exclusive to the service.” ViacomCBS plans to take more a targeted approach to exclusivity, relying mostly on its franchise IP. The streamer has already carved out its place in the “Star Trek” universe with three live-action series (with a fourth in development) and the animated “Lower Decks.” The next focus is the Nickelodeon mainstay “Spongebob Squarepants,” with a new movie, “Sponge on the Run,” as well as the prequel series, “Kamp Koral,” in the works as streaming-only properties. ViacomCBS is also attempting to stake its claim where the other streamers’ have not: live sports. Unlike other streaming services, CBS All Access features a live feed of the CBS broadcast network, allowing access to live programming like NFL games and college sports. And CBS is scheduled to host Super Bowl LV next February — assuming it can still be played mid-pandemic. All Access is also getting into exclusive sports rights, beginning with the UEFA Champions League next week. NBCUniversal’s Peacock, which had planned to launch this summer with coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, is so far the only other major streaming service that will have exclusive live sports. That could set up a preview of the next content battle between streamers. “The key is that what are those exclusive things, or those current things or live things that can really drive users into the service? Those are the ones we’re focused on,” DeBevoise added. “I think the best part about the content we’re bringing in — the new originals we’re building and some of the things like UEFA — they’re actually hopefully going to diversify our audience a bit.”