networks

Illustration via Max Fleishman (Licensed)

Classic TV networks are trying to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Earlier this month, the acclaimed CBS series The Good Wife aired its final episode. If you didn’t hear about it, it’s probably because, like many CBS shows, The Good Wife was largely considered as a show for an older audience. But while the Internet may have never given The Good Wife its due as a series worth obsessing over, the the show’s end actually marks a good time to start a discussion about the future of streaming, and how CBS and the other major networks will adapt with it.

At the network television upfronts last week, CBS announced that The Good Wife will be given a spinoff—which will air exclusively on its streaming platform, CBS All Access. A day later, the network released a teaser for their upcoming Star Trek series from Hannibal creator Bryan Fuller, which will also air exclusively on CBS All Access. With CBS All Access now set to unveil two original series, one has to ask the question, who does CBS think they are? Can this famously unhip dinosaur of a network really make a successful foray into the world of streaming? So far, they haven’t even been able to get their viewers behind the apparently too-edgy Stephen Colbert.

Yet more than any of the other major networks operating today, CBS has the right idea about the future of television. By investing in streaming early on, they’re investing in a future where cable companies will no longer hold the keys to the majority of content, and where consumers have more control over where they get that content.  

But before we look at the future of TV, let’s look at the recent past.

In 2007, the other major networks, FOX, NBC, ABC, and the CW all banded together to put their content on a new streaming website called Hulu. Finally, there was a legal way to watch your favorite network shows online for free (although premium options obviously weren’t far behind.) Ever the stubborn grandparent in the room, CBS was noticeably absent from this arrangement. In the years that followed, the popularity of streaming sites would only grow, with the arrival of other platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. So-called cord-cutters started to abandon traditional TV altogether for the new and exciting world of streaming. But even as ratings on the major networks continued to drop, cable maintained its stranglehold over the American public, thanks to bundles which used to be the only way to get all the premium and basic television viewers wanted.

Cable is still king when it comes to television, if for no other reason than good old-fashioned complacency. 

Then, last year, HBO struck a blow to cable packages with the release of HBO Now, their standalone streaming service which you can purchase without subscribing to the network. CBS then promptly announced plans to do the same, with CBS All Access.

Cable is still king when it comes to television, if for no other reason than good old-fashioned complacency.

With the average American watching around three hours of television a day at least, the average American family has remained content to pay huge sums for cable, knowing they’ll get all their desired content that way, just as they always have. But younger people have started to pick and choose where they get their content from, rather than accepting the traditional “pay for everything, even the stuff you don’t watch” model.

Cable providers lost 30,000 subscribers in the third quarter of 2015. According to comScore, 24 percent of 18-to-34 year olds don’t pay for a cable bundle. Thirteen percent say they’ve cut the cord, while the other 11 claim they never had a cord to begin with. Millennials have also indicated that they spend a third of their time watching television on other electronic devices, such as computers, tablets, and phones.

None of this is shocking. The notion that “young people use technology to get what they want” may be about the most obvious headline ever. But it is significant that CBS, the "old people network" (a title which is earned, if not slightly overblown,) has decided to lead the way among the major networks in appealing to cord-cutters.

CBS understands that one day, the cord-cutters (and "cord nevers") are going to grow up. They’re going to have families of their own. And rather than accepting the fate of the cable bundle, they’re going to keep cherry-picking which streaming services they want, like they have been for years, and they’re going to teach their children to do the same. They may even help their older parents switch over to streaming too. And when that time comes, CBS wants to be ready.

For consumers, the cost of switching from exorbitantly priced cable bundles to a select number of streaming services may indeed make the best financial sense. But as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson explains, even if it’s a lateral move, the money isn’t really the point of the streaming revolution.

“The mess of streaming options–the “mini-bundle,” or TV à la carte–might not be a better economic deal, if you think about the total value of the cable bundle. But economics is an overrated element of consumer psychology. Families don’t make decisions about entertainment by calculating the cost-per-attention-hour of their leisure time. They ask themselves simpler questions, like: “If I want to watch my favorite new TV shows—Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, and The Big Bang Theory—do I need the cable bundle?”... Today, the answer is: No, you can buy those channels like you can buy an apple, orange, and banana at any grocery store.”

Right now, FOX, NBC, ABC, and the CW all offer apps which allow you to stream their content. But those apps only work if you have already purchased a cable package which gives you access to those networks. Don’t expect things to stay this way for very long.

“CBS and HBO are not the only two new web-only offerings,” notes the  New York Times’ Emily Steel. “Sony is preparing an Internet product expected to include programming from Viacom, the parent of networks like Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. DirecTV also said that it would start an online video service. A similar service from Showtime, the premium cable network owned by CBS, is likely in the “not too distant future,” CBS  CEO Les Moonves said. NBC has taken tentative steps towards a stand-alone streaming service too, with the launch of their comedy website Seeso.

CBS is still adhering to some of the rules of traditional television. Although their new Star Trek series will stream exclusively on CBS All Access, episodes will be released on a weekly basis, rather than all at once. This puts their distribution model less in line with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, and more in sync with Hulu, who have also tended to drop episodes on a weekly basis instead of releasing whole seasons at a time. The difference, for now, is that with just two originals, CBS All Access offers little to viewers who aren’t fans of Star Trek or The Good Wife, and who don’t care about CBS’ back catalogue.

CBS All Access is an outlier. It's only a matter of time before other networks follow. 

But the significance of CBS All Access isn’t really about their ability to provide viewers with yet another hub for original content. CBS All Access is significant because it shows that CBS is looking forward to the time when standalone streaming services will overtake the necessity to purchase cable bundles.

The biggest gap between what streaming services and the major networks offer comes down to live TV. Hulu is set to start selling an Internet TV package with live programming sometime next year, with YouTube and Apple reportedly working on similar services as well. ABC currently offers live streaming with WATCH ABC, while Sling TV and Playstation Vue offer live streaming too. Aero made a good go of it, but is now effectively dead.

But all of these services are or have been limited by not offering enough sports, which is the main reason most people want live TV anyway. There are offerings such as ESPN 3 and MLB.TV, and Yahoo is also streaming every major league baseball game this year. But without an effective live-streaming option that allows Americans to watch football every Sunday, the cable bundle will continue to retain some of its power.

But not forever. When live streaming does start to catch up, as more networks offer stand-alone services, eventually even the NFL will have to pay attention. In the meantime, cable companies shouldn’t fret. What’s undisputable at this point is that streaming isn’t going away, which means that the cable giants will still make billions off Internet packages.

Today, CBS All Access is an outlier. But as they attempt, to quote Star Trek, “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” it's only a matter of time before other networks follow.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

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