The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Traditionally unhip CBS is trying to become cool — and change the future of digital entertainment in the process

A shot from CBS's All Access "Tell Me a Story." (Michael Parmelee/CBS)
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NEW YORK — Kevin Williamson, noted chronicler of Pacey, Joey and the rest of the Capeside gang, recently had an epiphany about his relationship with broadcast television.

“I was doing a lot of network and getting burned out on it,” said Williamson, who two decades ago created the landmark millennial hit “Dawson’s Creek” on the WB and made a half-dozen other broadcast series since. “I wanted something that was streaming and premium.”

The creator got what he wished for — sort of.

Williamson’s new show, “Tell Me a Story,” premiered this week on a CBS platform. But it’s not on CBS, that massively mainstream network of “CSI” and “The Big Bang Theory.” And it lands far from the conventional bull’s eye of those series.

"Tell me a Story” puts a dark, modern spin on classic fairy-tales, telling three parallel genre-inflected stories about young people in crisis. Built into the glossy show is a heavily serialized component — and plenty of drugs and sex. Mark Harmon solving naval crimes on “NCIS,” it isn’t.

Williamson’s new show will play exclusively on a digital service called CBS All Access. The platform is a unique creature, a product of the country’s most old-school — and old-skewing — broadcaster, trying to beat Netflix at its own game.

Launched in 2014 but ramping up its original programming in recent months, All Access seeks to walk a slippery line between mainstream network and premium-subscription television. The service offers perhaps the best chance for CBS to target the young viewers who have largely avoided the network. (CBS’s median-viewer age is nearly 60, the oldest of any of the broadcast networks.)

It also could turn into a tweener jumble that undercuts CBS’s traditional brand without making inroads for a new audience, leaving the company spending lots of money on programming for a streaming service to which nobody subscribes.

This is hardly an idle experiment. At stake in All Access is not just one company’s model but also the fate of streaming itself — whether it can be not just for the disrupters but also for the traditionalists, whether the future of television will be with those who’ve dominated it in the past.

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

If not? It could further reinforce the theory of a radical new era in television, one in which major broadcasters have been wholly replaced by upstart entities with direct ties to consumers, with little chance of ever turning back the clock.

The Digital Model

On a recent afternoon at his office downtown, Marc DeBevoise was debating the merits of different distribution approaches.

The All Access chief (official title: president and chief operating officer of All Access overseer CBS Interactive) had mainly been releasing one episode at a time. That’s a very unstreamer-like approach that nods more to All Access’s CBS roots, and DeBevoise wasn’t sure it should always remain that way.

“We’re testing a show in development now that lends itself more to the binging model,” said the executive, a veteran of Starz who speaks with the quick assurance of an Ivy League MBA. “We may do more of that."

Deciding how to disseminate its content is just one question with which the company has grappled as it builds a new model and seeks to lure subscribers.

All Access claims 2.5 million subscribers and aims for 4 million by next year. That number is impressive, analysts say, given how most Americans are not accustomed to paying extra for CBS-branded content. But experts also note the figure’s paltriness relative to competitors. Netflix, for instance, has more than 115 million subscribers globally.

As a digital venture with deep pockets, All Access offers what executives describe as the best of both worlds: the muscle and know-how of a broadcaster with the creative risk-taking of a streamer.

But its hybrid nature has also yielded plenty of naysaying. Skeptics — they include some who have worked with the company — ask whether All Access can create enough of a cool factor to attract paying subscribers, especially while tethered to a corporate structure, and brand, known for a traditional model of commercial viewership.

“There’s no doubt that following the viewer to their devices is a good strategy and that you need content people can’t get anywhere else to do that,” said Stephen Beck, the founder of New York-based consultancy cg42, which has conducted extensive studies on streaming and entertainment. “But All Access is trying to thread the needle between old and new in ways that bring a lot of challenges,” he added. “Can you make people think you’re more than CBS while still being CBS?”

CBS a decade ago chose to sit out Hulu, the digital venture of four other entertainment companies, because then-chief executive Leslie Moonves was worried about cannibalizing profits from the business, according to a person familiar with discussions who was not authorized to talk about them publicly. (Because its total-viewership numbers have eclipsed competitors for nearly two decades, CBS has had both a more lucrative business than its competitors and is more dependent on traditional advertising.)

But that conservatism ended up having a weirdly cutting-edge effect. When streaming finally became more popular, CBS had to build a service strong enough to stand independently. All Access launched with a bevy of library titles — “Cheers” and “Cagney & Lacey,” “MacGyver” and “Perry Mason.” For a monthly fee of $5.99 (with ads) or $9.99 (ad-free) consumers could have access to these shows as well as news, NFL games and the Grammys. Executives soon added original series — the red meat of subscription services — to attract subscribers.

But the creation of the service was, in a way, the easy part.

It’s the content, baby

Trying to craft a streaming series, what with so many creative avenues and dead ends, is never easy. But it’s especially hard for a legacy network like CBS. After all, if you’re not a broadcast network but you’re also not sister channel Showtime — if you’re somehow between them — what are you, really?

All Access programs have tried to steer that narrow course — while coming maybe, just maybe, a little closer to Showtime.

“At a network, you’re trying to hit a target you know exists,” said Julie McNamara, executive vice president of original content for All Access. “This is a totally other mandate. People have choices, and we have to think ‘how can we make something special they’ll pay for?’ It’s closer to Netlifx than CBS,” she added.

David Stapf, who runs CBS’s studio operation that 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 can be tricky.

“It’s very specific to the project. I do think All Access shows are more serialized than CBS shows and, definitely, more expensive,” he said.

But, he added: “The shows also have to be more accessible. They have to be a little bigger and broader than Showtime.”

The service has seven original series, including “Star Trek: Discovery,” the “Good Wife” spinoff “The Good Fight” and “Story,” as well as rocketry origin tale “Strange Angel” and a karmic mystery named “One Dollar.” In development are at least two other “Trek” series, including one with Patrick Stewart, the original Jean-Luc Picard; the idea is to flog that franchise in the way Disney does Marvel.

“We have three franchises and would like to get to four,” said DeBevoise. “But not everything is a tentpole,” he said, using Hollywood vernacular for franchises. “What we really want is to develop a group of original content that defines our service as premium.” All-Access aims to reach 10 new shows by next year. By contrast, Netflix has produced more than 60 original series, and that doesn’t even include animated and foreign-language programs.

One of All Access’ biggest bets is a Jordan Peele-overseen reboot of the “Twilight Zone,” scheduled for the first half of next year, it hopes will up its cool factor.

For now, though, it’s all about “Story.”

Based on a Mexican series, Williamson’s show partly took root at CBS when Moonves watched the foreign-language series at the behest of a producer and gave his seal of approval, according to a person familiar with the show’s origin who asked not to be identified so as not to upset any of the participants.

Williamson, who also wrote “Scream,” soon put his own stamp on the material.

“I got jazzed by the idea of deconstructing a fairy tale — if you were writing them today, what would they look like?” the creator said. “Instead of just seeing a wolf, see him emerge, and see how he’s not wolflike.” (There are actually two wolves: one in a “Little Red Riding Hood” riff, about a teenage partyer in a complicated relationship with her teacher; and another in a bank-robbery involving three people in pig masks. Hey, All Access likes options.)

The company’s creative relationships have not always been tension-free. “Star Trek: Discovery” creator Bryan Fuller was fired two years ago after clashing with executives. Two of his deputies, Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts, were put in charge, then ousted in June during development of the second season amid reports that writers felt they were being pushed to the point of mistreatment. Promoted to their job was Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer on the show who also wrote two of the modern “Star Trek” films.

Asked about the incident, Kurtzman said that “both of those were challenging times — those kinds of transitions are never easy.” But he noted that “I was at the ground floor” and “my approach is to empower people.” Neither DeBevoise nor Stapf would comment on the firings. Fuller did not reply to a request for comment.

Generally, though, McNamara and Stapf have established a reputation as artist-friendly, embodying a development ethos that, well, isn’t that of a broadcast network.

"Julie is very vocal about what she likes and, when something isn’t working, incredibly specific, which is what you want,” said Kurtzman. “She knows how to speak the language of a writer.”

Other creators, including “Story” director Liz Friedlander, note lots of support for big ambitions.

“There are commercials in All Access, but we don’t have to write to them,” said Friedlander, a veteran network television director, of the New York-set series. “Visually we went for a strong cinematic look. I don’t think that would ever fly on a network.”

This little streamer went to market

If All Access’s creative processes have been mostly smooth, marketing is another story. The company does not have its own marketing department, instead relying on a team from CBS. That has resulted in campaigns that can feel stodgy; one All Access promo that recently began playing on social platforms feels like a conventional network highlight reel, not the fizzy promotion of a streamer.

(Seeing a few seconds each from a barrage of All Access shows — the kind of presentation the networks make to advertisers at their annual upfront presentations in New York — may not resonate with a millennial who is thinking about, say, watching YouTube clips or “Stranger Things.”)

Two people who have worked with All Access and did not want to appear to be criticizing the service said the marketing approach, both for individual shows and the service, can be characterized by tentativeness, with executives either unable or unwilling to meaningfully set All Access apart from CBS and fashion its own progressive identity.

CBS is also undergoing an executive shuffle in the wake of Moonves’s departure amid sexual-assault allegations. The company is run by an acting chief executive, longtime Moonves deputy Joseph Ianniello. David Nevins, the head of Showtime, has been named to a newly position of chief creative officer at CBS. Stapf, McNamara and DeBevoise all said they were not preparing for major changes to All-Access under new management but could not be certain until the team was firmly in place.

If there is a tentativeness to All-Access marketing, it’s for good reason. Distance from CBS might be good for All Access’s digital future. But it worries advertisers and Wall Street, who could see the company as putting too much emphasis on All Access at the expense of the traditional business, which is where the real money lies. In its recent quarterly earnings Thursday, CBS said advertising revenue rose 14 percent to $1.42 billion. Much of that came from traditional broadcast advertising.

“The challenge of a company that also is that traditional is that you don’t know who to serve,” said Beck, the consultant. “Do you optimize your content for subscribers — or for existing network deals?”

The shakeout

Broadcasters face a streaming paradox. Unlike Netflix, they need to protect their golden goose. But they can’t rely only on its eggs, because what happens when those eggs — and the baby boomers who snap them up — stop comprising the largest part of the TV audience?

That paradox has been what has kept Comcast Universal, which makes a lot of money from the old-line cable distribution business, largely out of the streaming game. (It has just a minority stake in Hulu and it will probably be sold to Disney after that company’s merger with Fox.)

Disney’s own imminent streaming efforts also pose a competitive threat; no one knows right now whether subscribers who pay for “Star Wars” will also have room for CBS. At the same time, new entrants such as Apple will apply pressure from the other direction.

The average number of video-streaming services Americans pay for, according to data provided The Washington Post by the trade-group Consumer Technology Association, is two. If Netflix can be assumed as one of them, it doesn’t leave much room for many other competitors.

CBS must wrestle with all this while bifurcating its audience, holding on to the aging baby boomers that flock to its network while redefining itself to people younger than 40. “We know this is a difficult balance,” DeBevoise said. “We think we have the resources and knowledge to pull it off.”

McNamara said she realizes All Access has to nod to its core audience, and its history. She just doesn’t think the service needs to be defined by it.

“We’re part of a brand that has a 90-year history. We don’t shy away from that,” she said. “But we’re asking people to pay for our service in a new time. And we have to be aware of that, too.”