A la carte racing: CBS offers CBS All Access subscription service

Senior Television Writer
10.16.14 117 Comments


Yesterday, HBO said our a la carte TV future was coming. Today, CBS said that it's already here.

A day after HBO announced the vaguest of plans for a standalone streaming service, CBS not only announced specific plans for its own, but launched the thing. You can already sign up for CBS All Access, a subscription service that, for $5.99 a month, will offer the following:

* Full seasons of 15 current CBS shows, with new episodes available the day after they air.

* The ability to live stream local CBS stations in 14 participating markets – including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, “with more to be added” – with more affiliates allegedly to follow.

* Full past seasons of 8 current shows, including “The Good Wife,” “Blue Bloods” and “Survivor.”

* More than 5,000 episodes of classic series from the CBS library, including every episode of “Cheers,” the original “Star Trek” and “Twin Peaks.” (Though at the moment, I can't find the pilot episode for the latter, which has often been treated as separate in video and syndication deals.) The vintage shows will all be presented ad-free.

* Other bonuses like free access to the “Big Brother” live-feeds in the summer and  behind-the-scenes content for CBS awards shows.

Among the things not  included in the service is CBS' lucrative NFL package, so even if All Access has streaming rights with your local affiliate, you won't be able to watch Thursday night football games on your computer or phone. (For the most part, CBS' other sports packages will be available on All Access.)

In several interviews about the launch of the service, CBS chairman Les Moonves suggested that a Showtime a la carte service is likely in the “not too distant future.”

CBS and HBO operate at very different ends of the TV business model spectrum, but both have reaped profits from cable subscriber fees in recent years. And for a long time, executives in both places  suggested the cord-cutter movement wasn't big enough for them to endanger those profits by offering a standalone – “over the top” seems to be the industry's official term for the concept – service for people who have elected to go without cable. But that number keeps growing: HBO's announcement referred to 10 million current broadband-only homes, a total that'll only go up. And as other services like Aereo – which ceased to exist after a protracted legal fight with CBS and other broadcast networks – have popped up in attempts to get paid by providing access to those networks to cord-cutters, Moonves and others have recognized that the future is now, and they have to pivot towards it.

Now, this great a la carte future brings with it some downsides. A lot of the CBS All Access content was free at one point or another on CBS.com; now almost all of it – with recent episodes of current shows like “The Good Wife” and “The Big Bang Theory” being notable exceptions – exists behind that paywall, and at some point I wouldn't be surprised if all of it gets paywalled, with other services following suit. (Will you eventually need a Hulu Plus subscription, for instance, to watch even current network shows?)

Yes, cable bills are bloated and give you many channels that you have never watched and may never watch(*). But these individual subscription fees are going to start adding up, especially when you factor in what broadband is going to start costing if the providers no longer have lucrative cable TV businesses attached to it.

(*) Keep in mind that the current environment has also allowed channels like FX, AMC and Sundance to exist long enough for them to develop programs that viewers cared passionately about. If a la carte cable existed in the mid-'00s, I sure wouldn't have bothered subscribing to AMC, and maybe the channel would have simply gone out of business before “Mad Men” was created – or wouldn't have had enough of a subscriber base for that show to survive. 

I agree that choice is good, and that people shouldn't be forced to pay for the content that they don't want. But it's telling that the http://www.cbs.com/all-access URL redirects to http://www.cbs.com/all-access/upsell/. In theory, CBS content is something you can get for free, assuming you have a good TV antenna. Now we're heading down a road where every piece of entertainment that we considered “free” – even if we're not factoring in the costs of having a computer, having a good internet connection, etc. – will cost more and more and more, to the point where the great and wonderful a la carte future may be just as pricey as the current one, if not more.

What does everybody else think? Do you want to subscribe to CBS All Access? Are you excited about the accelerated pace things are going, or are you worried that this is just a new way to gouge the consumer?

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