Tragically, CBS strives to be cool - and change the future of digital entertainment

Tragically, CBS strives to be cool - and change the future of digital entertainment

A Shot from CBS All Access "Tell Me a Story" (Michael Parmelee / CBS)

NEW YORK – Kevin Williamson, a well-known chronicler of Pacey, Joey, and the rest of the Capeside gang, recently had a revelation about his relationship with broadcast television.

"I've done a lot of networking and burned out," said Williamson, who created the milestone hit "Dawson's Creek" on WB two decades ago and has since made half a dozen more programs. "I wanted something that was streaming and premium."

The Creator got what he wanted – somehow.

Williamson's new show "Tell Me a Story" premiered this week on a CBS platform. But it does not work CBS, the massively mainstream network of "CSI" and "The Big Bang Theory". And it lands far away from the conventional bulls of this series.

With "Tell me a Story" classic fairy tales are presented dark and modern and three parallel, genre-lubricated stories about young people in crisis told. Integrated into the glossy show is a highly serialized component – and lots of drugs and sex. Mark Harmon in the investigation of sea crimes in "NCIS" is not.

Williamson's new show will be played exclusively on a digital service called CBS All Access. The platform is a unique creature, a product of the country's oldest broadcaster, which is the country's oldest school system, trying to beat Netflix at its own game.

Launched in 2014, All Access has expanded its original program over the last few months, trying to choose a smooth line between the mainstream network and premium subscription television. The service may provide CBS with the best opportunity to appeal to young viewers who have largely avoided the network. (The average age of CBS is nearly 60 years, the oldest of the broadcast networks.)

It could also turn into a Tweener jumble that undercuts the traditional CBS brand without stopping a new audience. So the company has to spend a lot of money on programming a streaming service that nobody has signed up for.

This is not an idle experiment. All Access is not just about a single business model, it's about streaming itself – whether it's not just the disturbers but the traditionalists, whether the future of television will be with those on the Internet have dominated the past.

If All Access can build a critical mass of subscribers, it shows that old networks have found their way in the 21st century.

Unless? This could further reinforce the theory of a radically new era of television, where major broadcasters have been completely replaced by emerging companies with direct ties to consumers, with little chance of ever turning the clock back.

The digital model

One afternoon in his downtown office, Marc DeBevoise discussed the benefits of various sales approaches.

The All Access chief (official title: President and Chief Operating Officer of the All Access regulatory body CBS Interactive) mainly published one episode each. This is a very unresponsive approach, which adds more favor to the CBS roots of All Access, and DeBevoise was not sure if this should always be the case.

"We are currently testing a show in development that lends itself more to the binging model," said the executive, a veteran of Starz, who speaks with the swift assurance of an Ivy League MBA. "We can do more of it."

The decision on how to distribute the content is just one of the company's questions when it sets up a new model and tries to attract subscribers.

All Access claims 2.5 million subscribers and is targeting 4 million by next year. Analysts say this figure is impressive, as most Americans are not used to paying more for CBS content. However, experts also note how poor the number of competitors is. For example, Netflix has more than 115 million subscribers worldwide.

As a digital company with deep pockets, All Access delivers what executives call the best of two worlds: the muscles and know-how of a broadcaster with the creative risk-taking of a streamer.

But its hybrid nature has also resulted in a lot of nayaying. Skeptics – including some who have worked with the company – wonder if All Access can create a cool factor to attract paying subscribers, especially if they are tied to a corporate structure, and a brand known for a traditional model of commercial viewers is.

"There is no doubt that bringing the viewer to their devices is a good strategy and you need satisfied people who can not," said Stephen Beck, founder of New York-based consulting firm cg42 has collected studies on streaming and entertainment. "All Access, however, tries to pull the needle between old and new in a way that brings many challenges," he added. "Can you make people think you're more than CBS while you're still CBS?"

Ten years ago, CBS opted for Hulu, the digital company of four other entertainment companies, because then Chief Executive Leslie Moonves was concerned about exploiting profits from the business, according to a person familiar with discussions who had no authority to speak about them publicly , (With the total number of viewers dwarfing competitors for nearly two decades, CBS has been a more lucrative business than its competitors and more heavily dependent on traditional advertising.)

But this conservatism had a strange effect. As streaming became more popular, CBS needed to build a service strong enough to be independent. All Access started with a wealth of library titles – Cheers and Cagney & Lacey, MacGyver and Perry Mason. For a monthly fee of $ 5.99 (advertising) or $ 9.99 (ad-free), consumers can access these shows as well as news, NFL games, and the Grammys. Executives soon added original series – the red meat of the subscription services – to attract subscribers.

But the creation of the ministry was, in a sense, the easy part.

It's the content, baby

Trying to create a streaming series that ends with so many creative paths and dead ends is never easy. However, it is especially difficult for an old network like CBS. After all, if you are not a broadcast network, but also no sister channel Showtime – if you are somehow between she – what are you really?

All Access programs have tried to steer this narrow course – and maybe, maybe even, come closer to Showtime.

"In a network, you try to hit a target that you know has a destination," said Julie McNamara, executive vice president of original content for All Access. "This is a completely different mandate. People have a choice, and we need to think, "how can we create something special for which to pay?" That's closer to Netlifx than CBS, "she added.

David Stapf, who runs the studio of CBS, which feeds many of the All Access shows and also produces series for CBS and Streamers, says finding the right alchemy for an All Access show is difficult.

"It's very specific to the project. I think all access shows are more serialized than CBS shows and definitely more expensive, "he said.

He added, "The shows must also be more accessible. They have to be a bit bigger and wider than Showtime. "

The service includes seven original series including Star Trek: Discovery, the spin-off of Good Wife and Story, and Good Wife and Rockery Origin (Strange Angel) and the karmic mystery One Dollar. "At least two more" Trek "series are under development, including one with Patrick Stewart, the original Jean-Luc Picard; The idea is to beat this franchise the way Disney Marvel does.

"We have three franchises and would like to get four," DeBevoise said. "But not everything is a tent pole," he said, using the Hollywood dialect for the franchise. "What we really want is the development of a group of original content that defines our service as a premium." All-Access plans to reach 10 new shows next year. In contrast, Netflix has produced more than 60 original series, and this does not even include animated and foreign-language programs.

One of All Access's biggest bets is Jordan Peele's re-launch of the Twilight Zone, scheduled for the first half of next year. She hopes she will increase her cool factor.

At the moment, it's all about "story".

Williamson's show is based in part on a Mexican series and was rooted in part in CBS when Moonves, at the behest of a producer, watched the foreign-language series and gave its seal of approval, according to a person who is familiar with the origin of the show and asked not to be identified not disturbing any of the participants.

Williamson, who also wrote "Scream", soon coined the material himself.

"I loved the idea of ​​deconstructing a fairy tale – if you wrote it today, what would it look like?" Said the Creator. "Instead of just seeing a wolf, you see him appear and see how he is not voluptuous." (There are, in fact, two wolves: one in a "Red Riding Hood" riff) about a teenage party-boy in a complicated relationship with her teacher; and another in a bank robbery with three people in pig masks. Hey, All Access likes options.)

The creative relationships of the company were not always tension-free. Bryan Fuller, creator of Star Trek: Discovery, was released two years ago following a clash with executives. Two of his deputies, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, were hired and displaced in June during the development of the second season. Writers believed that they were being pushed to abuse. Promoted to her job was Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer of the show, who also wrote two of the modern "Star Trek" films.

When questioned about the incident, Kurtzman said that "both times were challenging – these kinds of transitions are never easy." However, he found that "I was downstairs" and "my approach is to empower people." , Neither DeBevoise nor Stapf commented on the shots. Fuller did not respond to a request for comment.

In general, however, McNamara and Stapf have established themselves as artist-friendly and embody an ethic of development that does not correspond to that of a broadcasting network.

"Julie is very vocal about what she likes and if something does not work, it's amazing what you want," said Kurtzman. "She can speak the language of a writer."

Other creators, including "Story" director Liz Friedlander, rely on big ambitions.

"There are commercials in All Access, but we do not have to write them," said Friedlander, an experienced network television director on the New York Set series. "Optically, we opted for a strong cinematic look. I do not think that ever flies on a network. "

This little streamer went on the market

When All Access's creative processes run smoothly, marketing is a different story. The company does not have its own marketing department, but relies on a CBS team. This has led to campaigns that feel uncomfortable. An all-access ad that has recently been played on social platforms feels like a traditional network highlight, not like a streamer.

(Seeing All Access shows for a few seconds-the way advertisers advertise their annual pre-show presentations in New York-can not be connected to a Millennial audience, say, through YouTube clips think or "stranger things.")

Two people who worked with All Access and did not want to criticize the service said that the marketing approach for both shows and service may be tentative, with executives either unable to use All Access or want from CBS and shape their own progressive identity.

CBS also suffers an executive mandate following the departure of Moonves on allegations of sexual assault. The company is headed by longtime Moonves Deputy Joseph Ianniello. David Nevins, the head of Showtime, has been appointed to a new position of Chief Creative Officer at CBS. Stapf, McNamara and DeBevoise all said that they were not preparing for major changes to all-access under new management, but they could not be sure until the team was in place.

If all-access marketing is temporary, there are good reasons. Removing CBS may be good for the digital future of All Access. However, it worries advertisers and Wall Street, who may see the company for All Access at the expense of the traditional real-money business. In its most recent quarterly earnings Thursday, CBS said ad revenue increased 14 percent to $ 1.42 billion. Much of it came from traditional broadcast advertising.

"The challenge of a traditional business is that you do not know who to serve," said consultant Beck. "Are you optimizing your content for subscribers – or for existing network offerings?"

The shakeout

Broadcasters face a streaming paradox. Unlike Netflix, they have to protect their gold goose. But they can not just rely on their eggs, because what happens when these eggs – and the baby boomers they snap up – make up most of the television audience?

This paradox has kept Comcast Universal, which makes a lot of money from the old cable distribution business and consists largely of the streaming game. (It only has a minority interest in Hulu and is likely to be sold to Disney after Fox's merger with Fox.)

Disney's imminent streaming efforts are also a threat to the competition. Currently, no one knows whether subscribers who pay for "Star Wars" also have room for CBS. At the same time, newcomers like Apple will exert pressure from the other direction.

The average number of video streaming services paid for by Americans, according to The Washington Post by the Consumer Technology Association (Washington Post), is two. If Netflix can be accepted as one of them, many competitors will not have much room left.

CBS has to struggle with all of this as it splits its audience and clings to the aging baby boomers that stream into its network, redefining itself for people under 40. "We know this is a difficult balance," DeBevoise said. "We believe we have the resources and the knowledge to succeed."

McNamara said she recognizes that All Access must nod to its core audience and its history. She just does not believe that service has to be defined by it.

"We are part of a brand that has a 90-year history. We do not shy away from that, "she said. "But we encourage people to pay for our service in a new time. And we also have to know that. "

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