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It’s Better Late Than Never for Paramount+, Even If It Was Actually First

Long before Disney+ and Peacock, CBS All Access paved the way for broadcasters to build their own streaming platforms. Now its successor hopes to close the gap in an arms race the early service foreshadowed.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

CBS All Access is dead. Long live Paramount+!

In the ever-shifting Streaming Wars, the freshly remerged corporate entity known as ViacomCBS occupies a somewhat paradoxical place. On one hand, the CBS Corporation was ahead of its time in launching the CBS All Access streaming service in 2014. Rather than go in with other broadcast networks like NBC and Fox on the service that would become Hulu—once a joint venture meant to pool resources among more traditional outfits as the threat of streaming solidified—CBS ventured out on its own with a stand-alone app. In a way, CBS All Access presaged the era of Disney+ and HBO Max, where media conglomerates have grown tired of leasing their product to third parties turned competitors and built platforms of their own.

On the other hand, CBS All Access was perhaps a little too ahead of its time. To compete with the bottomless tech budgets of Amazon and Netflix, newer services have capitalized on the many components of their larger corporate arsenal. Following its 2019 acquisition of the majority of Fox’s entertainment assets, Disney now commands subdivisions and properties ranging from FX, Marvel, and The Simpsons to Star Wars, Pixar, and the Disney Channel, each of which is featured in some way on Hulu (also now under Disney’s full control) or Disney+. WarnerMedia, under the auspices of AT&T, controls Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, HBO, DC, and Warner Bros., which are similarly spotlit on HBO Max.

CBS All Access, by contrast, was just, well, CBS—but on the internet! Six dollars a month for access to a single network’s offerings felt steep even when the service first appeared on the scene. Consumers mostly shrugged; critics banged their heads against a wall trying to evangelize exceptional exclusives like The Good Fight. All Access wasn’t a complete failure for its parent company, garnering a reported 8 to 9 million subscribers by the end of last year. But that figure pales in comparison to Netflix (over 200 million), Disney+ (95 million), or HBO Max (41.5 million, including those paying for just HBO). And even as the streaming era surged forward, CBS never attempted to fuse its digital presence with, say, Showtime—a network with the same corporate parent, but that maintained its own separate streaming service.

Following a corporate knife fight culminating in CBS’s consolidation with Viacom in 2019, this ahead-but-behind status quo is finally set to change. Starting Thursday, CBS All Access will now be known as Paramount+. For essentially the same price ($4.99 a month with ads, $9.99 without) as its predecessor, Paramount+ will finally encompass its own slate of brands, among them Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, the Paramount film studio, BET, Showtime, and, yes, CBS. On the eve of its launch, Paramount+ now faces a moment of truth: Can it catch up to all the services built on CBS All Access’s early example?

After an eight-month blitz that saw the debuts of Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock, consumers aren’t exactly on the lookout for yet another monthly fee to add to their entertainment budgets. And while the launch of Paramount+ has been on the horizon for months, the hype hardly compares to analogs like Apple TV+, which snowballed for two full years after the announcement of what would eventually become The Morning Show. Nevertheless, Paramount’s launch event last week successfully broke through the noise with such attention-grabbing announcements as a revival of Frasier (another example of a legacy media company capitalizing on the Netflix-granted second life of its intellectual property).

The opening lineup of Paramount+ reads very much like ViacomCBS has been studying its corporate rivals and using its relative delay to its advantage. Paramount+ shares a price point with AppleTV+, but also—and more importantly—NBC’s Peacock, a much closer cousin. Peacock, too, is the digital outgrowth of a Big Four broadcast network, one that wants to both leverage nostalgia and expand the owner’s footprint beyond a single channel. Those foundations put Paramount+ and Peacock in a position to compete for a very specific market, one mostly unclaimed by digital upstarts: live sports. Already a selling point of CBS All Access (one Ringer colleague outed themselves as a subscriber lured in by its Champions League soccer), Peacock offers the Olympics and Premier League, while Paramount+ has promised options from the NFL, the National Women’s Soccer League, and more, though specifics are still forthcoming.

Paramount+ also plans to go all in on throwbacks, a strategy shared by the likes of Peacock and Disney+. While the service will produce entirely original series, a dizzying number of titles announced will revive, reboot, riff on, and generally exploit a vast array of IP, including but not limited to: Star Trek, Criminal Minds, Fatal Attraction, The Italian Job, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Rugrats, Inside Amy Schumer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Beavis and Butt-Head, Flashdance, The Real World, and Behind the Music. And like HBO Max, Paramount+ will add pressure to already hard-pressed movie theaters by shortening the window of theatrical exclusivity, though not eliminating it altogether: Future Paramount films like A Quiet Place 2, Mission: Impossible 7, and the Paw Patrol movie will land on the service just 45 days after their theatrical debut.

ViacomCBS isn’t putting all of its eggs in one basket. As with Amazon and IMDb TV, the company also owns a less glamorous, ad-supported—but nonetheless popular—service, Pluto TV, acquired by a pre-merger Viacom in 2019. The platform now boasts 43 million monthly active users worldwide. By offering pre-programmed channels, Pluto TV simulates the experience of passive channel-surfing. Peacock currently offers its own version of simulated linear TV with randomized feeds of old SNL material and background noise from The Office. Soon, Paramount+ will have its own version of this option, promising a 24-hour news channel alongside a standard, self-curated streaming interface.

Of course, the simplest reason Paramount+ so closely resembles other streaming services—to the point of feeling like a grab bag of their various approaches—is that there are only so many ways to build a streaming service, and Paramount+ arrives in the advanced stages of the ongoing gold rush. That doesn’t mean the service is too late to break through; far from it. The underlying premise of mergers like the one that produced ViacomCBS is to become too big to fail, amassing a base so formidable it can’t be denied. It’s just that, by now, Paramount+ is entering a game whose rules are already established—the kind of service that makes self-aware jokes about “peak streaming” as a wink at its logo. To stick with the mountaineering metaphor: Paramount+ still has a long way to climb, even though its first incarnation arguably blazed the trail.