How CBS All Access Aims to Be a Streaming Player With The Good Fight, Star Trek, and More

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Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, Dylan Baker as Colin Sweeney in The Good Fight. Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

Sunday brings the season-one finale of The Good Fight, the spinoff of the dearly departed The Good Wife and the very first scripted original series for CBS All Access. Because All Access, like all of its streaming peers, doesn’t release audience data, there’s no way of knowing how many people have been watching the Christine Baranski–led Fight, whether that number has risen or fallen over the show’s ten-week run, or if its presence has led to a surge in subscribers. What we do know is this: Critics raved about the show at its launch, and the series allowed All Access to successfully begin transforming itself from a cute little side project for CBS Corp. into something potentially more ambitious. While the Eye has made it clear it’s not trying to turn All Access into a programming powerhouse on the scale of Netflix, the company absolutely hopes to turn it into a legit profit center, or, at least, a way to help make up for declines in broadcast advertising revenue as audiences move away from linear TV. So what does this all mean for current (and potential) All Access subscribers? We rang up CBS Interactive president Marc DeBevoise, who developed and oversees the streamer, to find out more about his company’s plans in the streaming space, what kinds of originals to expect, and exactly when that new Star Trek series will arrive.

I want to start by talking about where CBS All Access fits in the streaming universe. Until recently, it seemed to be a place for CBS reruns and the Big Brother live feed. Basically, a way for CBS to make money off the shows that it owned without just selling them to Hulu or Netflix. That still seems to be a big part of the DNA of your service. You’ve now launched your first big original scripted show, with a new Star Trek to come. Has your mission completely changed? Or has it just been modified?
Good question. Our original vision is still the same. We wanted to deliver a service where consumers could get everything we could possibly give them from CBS Corp., in one package across all devices. This was a service for superfans, people that just wanted more from CBS, or who happen to be one of the, let’s call it 20 million households, in the United States that do not receive television from a [cable] provider. That was the impetus. And I think that is a huge part of the model today.

I think the ambitious part that you’re talking about, and that we really launched in earnest this year, is delving into original content. We’re trying to find what will super-serve those superfans. What are the things that would be the reason to pay for the premium version of CBS? We’re trying to find those specialty items that will really deliver value to people that will subscribe.

Does that mean your originals will always be related to existing CBS All Access content, as Good Fight is to Good Wife and the new Trek is to the original series?
I think the answer is no. We will do original original things. But they are always going to be relevant to our brand — just the version you may not be able to get on broadcast.

So should we rule out CBS All Access taking a swing with a comedy or drama that you could never imagine in any form on CBS? Like, maybe, a Master of None or Transparent? You would go for something more like maybe Life in Pieces, but maybe more explicit?
Look, I would never say never to anything. But we know what our audience looks like. We know what they like to watch, both on-air and the folks that have subscribed to All Access. And we’re trying to program for those audiences. So I would never limit it — “We won’t do this” or “We won’t do that.” We’re going to do things that we think fit those audiences, either through the data and information we have of them or our belief that this is great content they will respond to. I’m not gonna go around and say what we’ll never do, but the things you’ll start to see us green-light, over the coming months, will speak to what we think will play well with the audiences we have, and the audiences we want to bring into the service.

Can you say anything about the kind of audience you have right now? Is it a younger audience than the typical CBS viewer?
Yep.

What else can you say about the demographics of the CBS All Access subscriber?
It’s about 60-40 female-male. It is usually younger than any of the broadcast audiences. It is low 40s average — it fluctuates between 42 and 43 sometimes, depending on the month. And a little bit over 30 percent is in the millennial category, 34 and under.

In terms of quantity, what is your goal over the next three to five years in terms of originals? You’ve made it very clear you’re not aiming to be Netflix, or even Hulu, in terms of how much you do. You’re not going to have a show premiering every week. But how quickly is the pace going to pick up?
We’re looking to do three or four series in the first year and move forward with that. I can see us growing incrementally off that three or four, but it’s not gonna be 50 series in the next few years.

You’ve done Big Brother: Over the Top and Good Fight, and Trek is supposed to come later this year. So we can expect one more original in 2017?
Whether we land something else inside of this year, I can’t comment on yet. But we have an idea that in ’18, it won’t just be those. There’ll be another, or more, that are added to that mix. We’ll have a lot more to talk about there in the coming months.

Do you think that you might make some announcements tied to the CBS Upfront presentation in May?
I can’t comment on what we’re going to announce at this point.

Will All Access be part of the CBS presentation?
We go to the Upfront as one company. I won’t be standing on the stage, personally. But we’ll be there.

One thing unique about CBS All Access is that — for now — it’s the only premium streaming service linked so clearly to a free, over-the-air broadcast network. Hulu has content from all the networks, but consumers think of it as a separate thing. Your pitch to potential subscribers is, “Pay money for CBS and CBS-like content that’s already available for free.” I mean, even though most people do pay for CBS via their cable bill, many don’t make that connection. There are folks, my mom included, who wonder why they have to pay a monthly fee to get a new version of The Good Wife. Is it a hurdle for you?
So, we do survey our audience, and we believe well over three-quarters of the subscribers who use All Access also have a cable bundle, or some other form or multichannel television. Forty-five million people have Netflix, and clearly many of them have cable also. The same thing with Hulu and HBO and Showtime and Starz. So our view is we have a shot to be in that area, that bucket of things. For some people who are saying this should be on CBS, the answer is, there are only so many slots and programs — and we honestly couldn’t do this show as it is on CBS … with the way the story is told and the language and things like that. We’d have to change the show.

But do consumers see it that way? I’ve sometimes thought maybe you’d be better off without CBS in your name, just because people wouldn’t think of it as something they get for “free.”
We totally hear you. We’ve seen the comments. And our view is it is more beneficial than detrimental to have CBS in our name for our premium service. And it really is inextricably linked. It is the live feed of the network, plus full stacking of the season. We do hear that point that people feel like they already get CBS, and that’s the choice consumers are gonna have to make: Do I want to pay for the benefits that this provides, or not? I think our goal of getting to 4 million subscribers by 2020 is a very reasonable goal for the percentage of audience we think will pay. I mean, there are 100 million cable-television households, and 118 million overall television households. We’re literally talking about less than 4 percent coming in to subscribe to hit our goal by 2020.

Right. And like I noted, consumers are already paying for a premium version of ABC, NBC, and Fox when they buy Hulu. A lot of TV industry folks think we may see those networks eventually start their own version of CBS All Access, too.
CBS All Access was essentially part of our answer to not joining Hulu with our first-run content. We’ve done some library stuff, but not the first-run shows. This is our version of that. If [the other networks] wanted to break apart [from Hulu], they may do that, and that will be interesting to see. But this idea they have not participated in this [subscription] market? They actually were here earlier than we were. We felt that our brand was always strong enough, and we did not want it to be diminished by being wrapped into another brand, and essentially eliminated. So it’s part of our vision to have that CBS brand be a brand into the future, one everyone recognizes for the type of content and things that we put out there. Part of our play is to make sure that brand, and the value associated with the brand, lasts.

You’re probably not going to say too much, but how has The Good Fight played so far on CBS All Access? Did it lead to a surge in subscribers, or break records in terms of audience?
Yeah, we’re not going to disclose subscriber numbers or viewership numbers. But what I will say is, we were very pleased with the results of the first half of a week or two-thirds of a week. It has been great so far. The press reaction has been phenomenal, they’ve been recognizing that it is a great show. So we could not be happier with the quality of the content, with the consumer reaction to the content, or with the critical reaction.

Even Hulu is moving toward releasing all episodes of its original series at once. It’s also ad-supported. Would you consider doing that with future originals?
We’re going to stick to the weekly model for now. I don’t foresee changing that. I differ with your opinion that we’re the only ones doing it that way. There really are only a couple [of outlets] doing it that way, right? Netflix and Amazon. Hulu has experimented both ways. But HBO, Showtime, Starz, and essentially, you know, any of the other [premium networks] out there have done weekly. And none of them have advertising. And frankly, if you’re a consumer and you want to watch them all at once, you can do that at the end of the season.

I have to ask you about Star Trek: Discovery. It’s been delayed a bit, and you parted ways with Bryan Fuller. You still haven’t announced a premiere date, or even a launch window. Where is that right now? And how big of deal is that going to be?
It’s going great, I’ve actually been up there [to the set]. It is, you know, phenomenal. It is huge. And we’re very excited about the content, the creators, the actors, all coming together. As you said, we’re not tied to any specific release date. It’ll be there when we’re ready to do it, and when we feel it’s in a great place. We’re not worried about anything here. We’re excited, and we’ll have more specifics as we get closer to what will likely be the release dates.

Is it likely going to be the fall?
We’re not stating.

One final question. Who would you say the main competition is for All Access? Is it Netflix and Amazon and Hulu? Other broadcast networks? Or are you just competing to get people’s attention?
You said it right: It’s not any one provider. It’s just trying to get consumers’ attention in general. We have 160 million people on our sites and apps every month across all of those properties, and specifically for All Access, you’re fighting a little bit more for that premium attention. But that doesn’t need to come at the cost of other premiums. It comes at the cost of reading the newspaper or you going to the gym. The trade-off really is time. When you look at the Nielsen and other data … overall media consumption is growing. So I don’t sit there and say, “Oh my God, Netflix launched, you know, The Crown or ABC had Designated Survivor or NBC has This Is Us.” I’m like, “It’s the golden age of television.” This is all great programming. We just want to make sure we can make great things that garner that attention, too. And I do think The Good Fight really is one of those great shows.

How CBS All Access Aims to Be a Streaming Player