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Why It’s Still Strangely Difficult to Stream CBS

And other quirks of the internet-TV future

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Earlier this year CBS secured its title as America’s most popular television network for the eighth straight year (and not just among the olds, either). But the network’s popular programming remains difficult to find via the various TV streaming services. DirecTV Now, the new online pay-TV offering from AT&T, boasts livestreams of more than 120 channels at prices ranging from $35 to $70 per month, but none of the service’s packages include CBS. Neither does Sling TV, the most popular of the online cable competitors. And Hulu has been missing many major CBS shows for years, including The Big Bang Theory, et al., which doesn’t bode well for the prospects of the streaming service’s upcoming live-TV offerings. (PlayStation Vue, another competitor in this space, does stream CBS in some markets.)

So what gives? The absence of the most-viewed channel on television from a bunch of services that aim to disrupt television illustrates that the big media players aren’t walking into the online future in lockstep. In fact, things are likely to keep getting messier from here, as the wildly lucrative cable ecosystem that kept networks and operators in a stable partnership slowly crumbles.

CBS was actually the first major network to venture outside the walled garden of pay TV. In 2014 the company launched CBS All Access, a subscription service that includes a livestream of the flagship channel and an incomplete catalog of the network’s many hits. This was before even HBO’s much-hyped independent streaming service rolled out in 2015. And while you might question who would pay $6 per month to access a livestream of The Price Is Right (All Access doesn’t even stream Sunday NFL games, the network’s most valuable property), it’s clear CBS is serious about making the product a success. In September, All Access got its first exclusive programming in the form of a Big Brother spinoff, and next year it will host a spinoff of The Good Wife and a new Star Trek series.

CBS is giving customers what they say they want by letting them buy the channel à la carte. Seventy-eight percent of TV viewers said they’d prefer to purchase channels individually, according to a recent survey by Tivo. But you can bet Leslie Moonves isn’t about to start taking smaller paychecks, which means paying for individual channels separately is likely to be more expensive than buying a bundle of channels. And because CBS is pushing its own online network, it has less incentive to allow its programming on rival services. The company is known to be a tough negotiator: In 2013, CBS squared off with Time Warner Cable over the price the cable operator would pay to broadcast the network, known as a carriage fee. When the two sides wouldn’t budge and CBS went dark for a month for about 3 million New York customers, Time Warner Cable lost 3 percent of its subscribers, and its profits tanked. Ultimately the cable company agreed to pay CBS a higher fee.

In general, you should expect CBS’s appearance on upcoming online-TV channel lineups to be sporadic at best (in addition to Hulu’s announced service, Google and Apple are perpetually a year away from launching revolutionary cable killers). But there are a few other bumps on the road to the internet-television future as well.

Livestreams of Network TV Are Hard to Come By

NBC, ABC, and Fox have proved willing to add their channels to tech companies’ streaming services. Problem is, these New York–based companies don’t actually do all that much broadcasting on their own across the country. The FCC limits how many broadcast stations a single company can own, so most network feeds are operated by smaller affiliates rather than the national networks. ABC can ink a deal with DirecTV to livestream its programming in the markets where it owns the television station, but the network can’t make an affiliate give DirecTV its livestream. That’s why the new DirecTV Now service is missing live feeds of the major networks in many markets, but will have the big prime-time shows from these channels available on-demand a day after they air.

Cloud DVR Isn’t Standard

We live in an increasingly on-demand media environment, but the new internet-TV services aren’t all up to speed yet. Cloud-based DVR service has long been available on Vue, and it’s coming soon to Sling, but it won’t come to DirecTV Now until next year at the earliest. Viewers won’t even be able to pause live TV for more than five to 10 seconds on AT&T’s service (many programs will be available the day after they air on-demand and can be paused/rewound in that format). Trying to persuade cord cutters to return to the world of appointment viewing is a tough sell, so these services will need to improve the feature if they really want to woo the Netflix crowd.

There’s Not One Streaming Device to Rule Them All

DirecTV Now is available on a bunch of streaming devices … but not yet on Roku. Sling TV isn’t available on PlayStation 4, where it would compete with Vue. If Amazon actually ends up launching a television service, it probably won’t be available on Apple TV. It’s already hard enough keeping up with which content is available on each streaming service, but TV fans also have to hope that their streaming device of choice lands their preferred service. If hardware makers like Google and Apple really do end up launching their own streaming competitors, there may be even more confusion. Say what you will about the lowly cable box, but at least you knew it could carry every channel you might want to watch. Tech companies and pay-TV operators will need to work to streamline the internet-TV experience if they want to convert the less tech-savvy couch potatoes among us.