CBS started its own streaming video service in 2014 and with the launch of Star Trek Discovery, its popularity soared. Check out our CBS All Access Review to see what you can get now.
We’ll introduce you to CBS All Access, explaining how and where to get the service (it’s tricky). Then we’ll walk through the site to see how it’s set up. Finally, we’ll take a look at the content on CBS All Access and give you our opinion.
Most of the traditional broadcast networks took the easy way out with their streaming strategies: if you have a cable subscription, you can live-stream your local station. CBS took a different approach by setting up its own over-the-top streaming service.
All Access is an ad-supported subscription service for CBS’ broadcast content. You get on-demand access to the latest episodes of CBS’ hottest TV shows, as well as over 9,000 episodes from the network’s sixty-year back catalog. Sports fans will appreciate getting local streams of NFL games, pro golf tournaments, and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. CBS also develops subscriber-only content including spinoffs of Big Brother, The Good Wife, and Star Trek.
That approach seems to have gone well since its launch in 2014. CBS All Access reached 1.5 million subscribers early this year – as many subscribers as Showtime has on cable. By late 2017, CBS executives announced that CBS All Access would reach four million subscribers.
What accounts for that success? People like it. CBS has aired five of the ten most popular TV shows on broadcast or cable TV. The Big Bang Theory took the top spot followed by NCIS. The other top performing shows included Bull, Blue Bloods, and Thursday Night Football.
How Do I Get CBS All Access?
CBS only makes a few episodes of current-run shows available on its website without a CBS All Access subscription. The service is available to Americans only – CBS’ geo-fencing system blocks people outside the United States. Even in the US, about 10% of the population can’t get streams of their local CBS stations. Here’s a run-down of everything you need to know about getting CBS All Access.
After a seven-day free trial, you get two subscription options that are completely cable-independent. You can also get an add-on subscription to CBS-owned Showtime.
CBS All Access Limited Commercials – For $6-per-month, ads appear at the beginning of each on-demand TV stream and several times during the stream. (We’ll talk more about advertising later on.)
CBS All Access Commercial Free – CBS removes the advertising from all but “select” on-demand TV video streams at its $10-per-month premium level.
In both cases, live local streams have all of the ads from the regular over-the-air broadcast. Annual plans at both levels will give you twelve months for the price of ten.
CBS All Access doesn’t give access to all. You’ll want to read the next couple of sections carefully to make sure you know what you’re getting before you subscribe.
No Global Support
Like many other streaming services, CBS All Access is geofenced. Only people physically in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska can get the streams. American subscribers who travel overseas get blocked.
The geo-fencing also means Puerto Ricans, as well as the Americans living in US territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, are treated as foreigners. That won’t change anytime soon, but extended the fence to Canada in 2018.
Mixed US Support
Local streamers might be out of luck. CBS blacks out its live stream in about fifty markets that cover about 10% of the US population. Check the support page for the markets that do get CBS live streams.
The problem is that CBS only owns sixteen of the local affiliate stations. The other stations are independently owned, with their own contracts for local programming and reruns. Those contracts may have been written years ago before streaming content was a thing. The local stations have to renegotiate those contracts and get their suppliers’ approval before CBS All Access can carry the local stream.
In the meantime, subscribers in those black-out markets still get the latest episodes on-demand. They won’t get local news or weather, but the bigger issue is sports. CBS only streams sports through the local live feed. No local stream, no football.
You can get CBS All Access on all of the major streaming platforms. The most complete access is through the CBS.com website. Not only do you get the on-demand and live-streaming, you also get news and photo galleries for special programming and live events.
CBS All Access Walkthrough
Let’s take a walk through the way CBS organizes its over-the-top service and see how things change between the web app, streaming boxes, and smartphones.
Once you have set up your account, you don’t need to go back to the All Access landing page. Just sign in to your account on the cbs.com homepage. The main screen gives you your navigation options as well as a rotating banner of featured content at the top of the screen.
As you scroll down, you get carousels of new releases, recommended programs, and other curated themes.
Select the Shows option in the top navigation menu to get to CBS’s on-demand programming. The sub-menu lets you filter content by categories. Selecting All Episodes will autoplay one of the latest episodes from current run series.
When you select Live TV, the CBS site will check your location to make sure it only shows you live streams from the local station.
Once it confirms your location, the local station’s broadcast begins streaming.
The Schedule section shows the CBS primetime lineup, but not local programming or daytime programming.
The Movie section has a very limited twenty-one title selection. The heavy mix of titles from the 1980s and 1990s reflects CBS’ focus on the Baby Boomer and Generation X demographics.
You can also shop for CBS themed merchandise, develop custom playlists, register a TV provider, or switch to the CBS News or CBS Sports websites.
CBS All Access on Apple TV
The Apple TV version of the CBS app uses the same navigation structure as the website, with a few exceptions. You don’t get options for CBS Sports or for the live-stream from the CBSN news network. (There’s a separate CBS News app for that.)
The on-demand content is the same, however, and you can live stream your local station’s broadcast.
CBS All Access on iPhone
The iPhone app, although laid out differently, has the same structure and limitations as the Apple TV app.
One difference from the Apple TV app is your automatic enrollment in the Nielsen tracking system. You can opt out if you don’t want the market research firm to include you in its rating system.
What is the Content Like?
If you watch CBS, then you know that it takes a certain approach to its broadcast programming. Nobody watches CBS for edgy content. That approach carries across to CBS All Access and to its original content. Within the context of CBS’ production philosophy, the quality of the content is good.
The streaming quality, on the other hand, is not as consistent. I experienced significant issues one afternoon while streaming an episode of Hawaii Five-O. It took five to ten seconds for the video to buffer. Ten minutes into the episode the video bitrate suddenly dropped to 480p and audio dropped from surround sound to mono. It took a full seventy seconds for the quality to improve.
Then one night I was half way through Star Trek Nemesis when the video froze while the audio continued. Cancelling playback didn’t work and neither did turning the Apple TV off and turning it on again. It is possible that there were issues with my cable service, but nothing was wrong with my Netflix stream that I tested out at the same time.
Test the quality thoroughly at different times on different days during your free trial to make sure you don’t run into these issues. There’s some good stuff on CBS All Access you might want to watch, but there’s no point in paying if the streams don’t deliver.
CBS is driving subscription growth by creating original content that only subscribers can access. The network kicked things off with Big Brother Over The Top last year. This year it shifted to scripted entertainment by producing spin-offs of two popular series.
The Good Fight
With the launch of The Good Fight, CBS showed how it plans to drive subscriber growth. A spin-off of The Good Wife, the first episode premiered in mid-February – but not on CBS All Access. The network aired the first episode on its primetime broadcast. After that first taste, none of the remaining episodes aired on live TV. CBS released them one week after the other in CBS All Access.
Star Trek Discovery
CBS repeated that strategy when it brought the Star Trek franchise back to TV with Star Trek: Discovery.
Go through enough parent companies and you will find that CBS and Paramount are owned by the same family. That’s why, even though Star Trek originally aired on NBC, all of the follow-on series’ aired on CBS. It’s also why you can watch every episode of The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, and The Animated Series. What you can’t do is watch any of the movies, except Star Trek Nemesis.
Total Entertainment, Mostly
The on-demand catalog is deep but inconsistent. You can watch more than three hundred episodes of NCIS, for example, but you can only watch seven episodes of The Big Bang Theory. In most cases, this comes down to whether CBS produced the show (so you get all the episodes) or some other company did (so you don’t).
You can watch classic TV shows like the original Hawaii Five-O, The Brady Bunch, and Cheers. Classic TV fans will notice that Cheers originally aired on NBC and The Brady Bunch was an ABC show. You’ll also be missing CBS-broadcast icons like The Honeymooners, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Bob Newhart Show. Nobody ever said TV licensing deals made sense.
Besides the CBSN live stream, you get episodes from CBS news magazines like 60 Minutes. The individual episodes are arranged chronologically just like the entertainment shows. That makes sense from an architecture standpoint, but news programming is topical. Arranging videos by topic would make more sense for viewers.
Cord-cutting football fans will appreciate having access to the NFL broadcasts. The games you see will depend on your market and will be subject to the same blackout rules that over-the-air broadcasts have to deal with. The NFL also limits the platforms you can use to watch football broadcasts.
Local Live TV
Cord-cutters (in most markets) will also appreciate getting streams from their local CBS affiliate. This is a straight feed from the local station, so you get the same ads everybody else does.
For the on-demand side of things, CBS takes a light approach with ads. Movies-watchers don’t see them, but subscribers at the “Limited Commercial” level will get ads during on-demand TV episodes. A sixty-second commercial leads off every stream.
More ads will run during the show. Five ninety-second ad breaks appear during each one-hour episode. Once the ads start running, you lose the ability to fast forward. CBS removes most of the ads for subscribers at the “Commercial Free” level, although they reserve the right to include promotional spots during “select” programs.
Overall Review: 8
Content Quality: 9
Content-wise CBS All Access only has a few things working against it. Licensing issues aren’t really CBS’ fault, but do impact people in fifty markets. The absence of classic CBS TV shows, on the other hand, really needs to be addressed. Another issue is its decision to license content to other streaming services. You can watch as much NCIS as you want on Netflix. Amazon Prime has all of the Star Trek TV shows plus almost all of the movies.
Streaming Quality: 8
As I mentioned earlier, I had issues at different times on different days with the streaming. The first was a minor annoyance – I didn’t really want to watch a repeat of Hawaii Five-O. Star Trek Nemesis, on the other hand, is the only Trek film I haven’t seen – and that’s still the case. I gave up on it after it froze for a second time. Let me know in the comments if you’ve run into the same issues.
Device Support: 9
The only reason for knocking a point off here is the inconsistent implementation across the various platforms. This mainly shows up in sports which, again, is not really CBS’ fault.
You can get similar content on other streaming services. You can get CBS News absolutely free through its own apps. And services like FuboTV will start carrying local streams. So is All Access really worth $60-$100 each year? The Good Fight drove subscription growth in the first half of 2017 and a lot of Star Trek fans subscribed so they can watch Star Trek: Discovery. But CBS only plans to add one or two new Originals each year that isn’t enough unique value to make CBS All Access competitive with Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Prime.
CBS All Access is a solid over-the-top streaming service with a respectable selection of on-demand and live content. The real issue is that this is yet another $6 a month hit on the entertainment wallet. That is a lot of money to be charging given how much of CBS’ programming you can get on other services. CBS will have to do better than “solid” if it wants CBS All Access to grow over the long term.