Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max … they could all pale in comparison to a beefed-up streaming service from the newly merged ViacomCBS. Granted, the recently re-merged content companies have a long way to go (and a lot to learn) if they hope to stay competitive in the Streaming Wars; CBS All Access is both a solid launching point and a hard lesson in how not to package a streaming service in the 21st century. But the re-merged companies also have an incredible amount of contemporary and nostalgia-tinged content that absolutely blows their competitors out of the water. If done right, ViacomCBS All Access could be as dominant in the streaming industry as CBS itself has been on network TV for years.
Their success in the more traditional broadcasting industry may actually hamper ViacomCBS’ ability to translate those wins in the wild frontier that is the streaming industry. The big, slow-moving, and slower-to-change megacorporations have the benefit of sitting idly by to see how relative upstarts like Netflix and Amazon Prime reshaped the way audiences consumed media, but with that advantage comes the difficulty in making broad, sweeping changes to an entrenched existing service. Disney+ made some early gaffes that seemed rather obvious to anyone who had used Netflix’s service for more than an hour or two; a missing “Continue Watching” feature, a lumbering search functionality, and inability to keep pace with early demand were just some of the launch-day highlights. But they may have made up for lost time with lots of original content, a relatively wide-open vault of decades of their archived materials, and lots and lots of tie-in marketing deals to get cross-promotions going so that anyone and everyone has Disney+ on at device (or 10) by year’s end.
It’s looking like HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, didn’t pay attention to either Netflix’s successes and failures or those of other streaming services that tried to copy them. Despite boasting more than 45,000 hours of content, their plan is to offer a quarter of that at launch as a core library, and then roll out the rest of that content in waves so as not to overwhelm their subscribers with choices … which is certainly a choice. There are some pluses to be found in their plan, which basically rolls existing HBO Now subscribers into HBO Max subscribers, no muss, no fuss, but the branding remains suspect. They’re also keeping their current standalone streaming silos intact rather than folding them into the general HBO Max library, though they’ll offer samplings for those who are interested. But will people even know that much more than just HBO titles is now available to them? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Apple TV+, well … they’re doing their best. So in 2020, it’s ViacomCBS’ war to win.
How exactly does the newly merged company become the King of Streamers? In a word: Content. Content is king, and ViacomCBS has more than 140,000 premium TV episodes and 3,600 film titles in its catalogue. Those titles span just about every conceivable genre and category you can think of, and they’re both available and recognized on a worldwide basis. Need a brand refresher? On the CBS side, there’s all the CBS channels and networks, from the vanilla parent service to sports, entertainment, news, the CBS All Access streaming service, and more. Plus, they’ve also got Showtime, The Smithsonian Channel, Pop, Simon & Schuster, The CW, Watch! Magazine, and Network 10. Substantial. But it’s the Viacom side of the merger that really makes the difference.
They’ve got (deep breath): Awesomeness, Bellator, BET, Channel 5, CMT, Colors, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount, Pluto TV, Telefe, TV Land, VH1, and VidCon. Even if you don’t recognize everything in the list, there are some brands that would be incredible streaming services in their own right. ViacomCBS surely knows this and has already promised a “robust streaming strategy” to come. But what will that look like?
Back in November, the pre-merged companies laid out their streaming plans, which includes both free and paid services that have access to both archival and original content, plus the traditional in-house production services and third-party deals. Bob Bakish, Viacom’s CEO who now runs the newly merged entity, is planning for “differentiation and capital efficiency [while] in the middle of developing [their] combined company streaming strategy.” Reading between the lines, that basically means they have a ton of content spread out all over Creation, and they haven’t quite figured out how to wrangle it all yet, despite a big investment by CBS into their standalone streaming service CBS All Access; more on that in a minute.
As it stands, ViacomCBS has more disparate and solitary streaming services, not to mention production deals with third-party / competing streaming content providers, than they do publicly revealed plans to cohesively consolidate that massive library. CBS All Access was a great test launch (though who knew it’s been around in one form or another for more than five years now); more recently, the streaming service saw double-digit growth in subscribers last year, the majority of that viewership skewing younger than you might expect for the CBS demographic, and they’re consuming streaming content in ways that old-school execs are still figuring out. As of last June, the company was aiming for 25 million U.S. subscribers by 2022, for both CBS All Access and Showtime’s streaming service; the addition of Viacom’s content to the library could make that number seem small.
I say could because there are some gray areas to navigate out there. Last November, Viacom extended deals with NBCUniversal for The Office and Parks and Recreation, the former will continue on Comedy Central through 2021 before entering a non-exclusive window on Viacom Media Networks through 2025; Parks and Recreation, meanwhile will continue airing on Comedy Central through 2024. But both shows will also stream exclusively on NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock. Parks and Recreation will move off of Netflix and other streaming services this October, followed by The Office doing so in January 2021. Granted, the streaming rights deals pulled in more than $600 million combined, so that explains why Viacom might have been willing to cash a big check now before pulling the titles back under their own streaming service in a few years, once the subscription base is even bigger. But wait, there’s more.
Also last November, Nickelodeon and Netflix re-upped their partnership for more animated films, specials, and TV series as part of a multi-year plan. So basically, whatever the Nickelodeon Animation Studio cooks up in the years ahead will be headed to Netflix instead of ViacomCBS’ own streaming service…
These decisions are real head-scratchers. It seems like common sense would dictate moving owned content under the parent streaming service, especially when the company line is that streaming is the future. ViacomCBS, like similar traditional networks attempting to evolve into a streaming entity, is keeping one foot in the old while dipping a toe into the new. Are they hedging their bets by trying to keep both irons in the fire, because either they don’t really believe that streaming will inevitably replace cable or they want to wait to jump from one ship or the other when the picture’s clearer? Or maybe, and this is the worse option by far, the newly merged ViacomCBS isn’t all that merged when it comes to streaming service ideologies.
That’s a bummer. Much like WarnerMedia’s HBO Max is missing a golden opportunity by throttling available content for potential subscribers and limiting awareness with their branding, ViacomCBS is sharing their best nostalgia properties with the competition rather than bringing everything under one shared banner. CBS All Access will be fine with their subscriber base as-is, but since their numbers are skewing younger, it would make sense to tap into that by folding in Viacom content which is pure nostalgia. But as it stands now, the streamer is happy with status quo, and Viacom is content to share out their content for short-term gains and, potentially, a long-term recoupment. That approach feels shortsighted, so expect Netflix to reign supreme until a worthy competitor enters the fray.