Since Star Trek: Discovery will be coming exclusively to CBS All Access in the United States, I decided to give the network’s new over-the-top streaming service a try. I’ve been using All Access for a good nine months now, and I’ve learned a thing or two about what the service gets right and where it leaves something to be desired.
UPDATE: (8/31/2016) CBS All Access has announced an ad-free option for $9.99/month!
My conclusion? All Access is probably a good thing for Star Trek, and there is no doubt that I would recommend you get it in order to watch Star Trek: Discovery. But the service itself currently has two major flaws: too many ads and less than stellar audio and video compression. Both of these things are easily fixable before Discovery‘s January 2017 premiere date (can we get #AdFreeOption trending?). But, for the moment, I’m envious of the 188 countries that will be watching new Trek on Netflix.
Many fans have been resistant to paying for a new subscription service right off the bat. We talked at length about what All Access means for the franchise last November after the new show was first announced. The move by CBS to create their own over-the-top (OTT) service may ultimately be a game changer for the major networks, but it certainly is a gamble in today’s cord-cutting marketplace, and CBS will have to make a lot of tough decisions about exactly how to maximize profits while making the service appealing in a sea of other, ostensibly more complete, streaming libraries like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.
For the remainder of this essay, we ask whether or not All Access can succeed in the context of today’s market. Our analysis hinges on the thesis that consumers want to pay to legally obtain products and services. But, illegal streams and downloads are tempting, and customers will only fork out their hard earned qualtoos for a service that fits their needs.
Say what you want about the Napster generation, but they aren’t looking for handouts, and they don’t expect content for free. Pay What You Want models like the Humble Bundle and those employed by an increasing number of music artists have shown time and time again that people will pay for content – but they will only pay if they think the price is fair and the product meets their standard of quality.
How Does All Access Stand Up?
First, it’s important to put All Access into the proper context. How does it stack up to the other similar services that many of you may already subscribe to?
At $5.99/month, All Access certainly wins the day when it comes to cost. For basic cable in the US, you’re looking at a minimum $66/month bill (and often customers pay over $100/month). Even if you subscribe to all the major streaming services like Netflix ($8.99), Hulu ($7.99/month or $11.99/month ad-free), and Amazon Prime ($8.25/month), you’re still doing better than cable at around $30/month, less than half of the lowest possible cable bill.
|All Access||Netflix||Hulu Plus||Amazon Prime||Cable TV|
|$5.99/month||$8.99/month||$7.99/month with ads or $11.99/month ad-free||$8.25/month ($99/year)||$25–$130/month|
With one month of All Access clocking in around the price of a cup of coffee, it’s hard to fret about adding it to your monthly bill. But more than cost is driving customers to OTT offerings.
Give us an #AdFreeOption
It’s understood that advertisements were once the only way to pay for our beloved television franchises (and YouTube videos and the like), and so the quality of shows were allowed to suffer somewhat in order to monetize them. But, the advent of the paid subscription service has made that a thing of the past.
With this new pay to play model, content providers do not need to rely so heavily on advertisement revenue. For consumers this means truly minimal ad breaks or even none at all, and for the creatives behind the scenes, this means the opportunity to create longer, more rich stories whose narratives are not constantly interrupted by loud, obtrusive commercials.
Which brings us to our first point of contention with All Access: no ad-free option.
Hulu offers up a higher tier with no ads for an extra $4/month. Without an ad-free option for All Access, it kind of feels like we’re paying for the show twice, despite the service’s small price tag.
It’s crucial to note exactly how many ad breaks we are talking here. In a recent announcement CBS Interactive President and COO Marc DeBevoise touted All Access’ “limited commercial load”, which in the minds of the CBS exec apparently translates to 75% of the normal broadcast TV load (or roughly 12 minutes of ads per hour of television, which is notably the maximum legal limit in the European Union and the UK).
This is hardly a “limited” ad load, and consumers are already taking notice. To content providers, the message is clear: don’t double dip. Either charge us or show us ads. Not both.
Many Ways to Watch
All Access is looking good when it comes to the quality and availability of the app itself.
The failure of the pay to play model due to inaccessibility is exemplified by HBO’s Game of Thrones, the most pirated show in history. Early in the show’s run, this was thought to be largely due to the inability to purchase the show without a cable subscription. HBO’s only streaming service at the time, HBO GO, was only available to customers that already had cable. The launch of HBO NOW, which does not require a cable sub, somewhat alleviated this problem, but the service is so tied to Apple products like Apple TV and iPad that non-Apple users continued to shun the paid service, thus allowing Thrones to keep the top spot on the illegal downloads charts.
All Access is happily cross-platform and is available as a mobile app, on Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, Xbox 360, and Android TV. There is no limit to the number of devices that can be connected to one account, and up to two simultaneous viewers can be using the service at any one point in time.
An Expectation of Quality
Stream quality is a very important place where CBS All Access sometimes falls short. This could certainly change before the January 2017 debut of Star Trek: Discovery, but at the moment, the quality of both the audio and video is less than perfect.
I don’t have cable, but CBS over-the-air comes in rather nicely in my apartment via an antenna. I went ahead and compared the All Access stream of CBS’s (now CW’s) Supergirl to the episode I had recorded on my HD TiVo side by side.
The first striking thing was the fact that the All Access stream appears to be the over-the-air stream simply ported to my Apple TV app. It was identical for content and timing, right down to the ads. More importantly, though, was the fact that the quality of the video and sound on my TiVo was noticeably better than the All Access stream. Add to that the fact that I can fast forward through ads on the TiVo, and I have very little reason to watch Supergirl on All Access. Unfortunately, we won’t have that option with Star Trek.
To be fair, I make this judgement under a quite critical eye. I am particularly sensitive to pixelated or fuzzy video and staticy audio. On the other hand, if this is my only way to watch the new Star Trek show (and considering I am paying for the service via monthly subscription and by watching lots and lots of ads), I expect nothing but the best quality.
CBS may be up to the challenge of getting their compression up to scratch, however. The network got a trial run of the their new platform when they streamed the 2016 Grammys via All Access back in February. CBS reported an record number of viewers and new All Access users citing a 247% increase in time spent watching and an upswing of 192% more unique users compared to the 2015 Grammys. CBS’s servers were apparently overwhelmed by the influx of traffic, however, leaving a small number would-be viewers only to stare frustratedly at screens telling them that their new app was “Unable to show live TV content at this time.” Others who were able to watch reported shoddy or “glitchy” stream quality, apparently also due to the high traffic load.
CBS blamed the live steam problems on a glitch in All Access’ ability to verify the locations of some users and ended up fixing the issues for most subscribers before the show was over, which is a testament to CBS’s ability to react quickly to solve the problem. It also tells me that they are aware of a number of challenges that they face in getting All Access to work just right come January and gives me hope that the streaming quality will be top notch in time for Trek.
All Access: Not Truly ALL Access?
Possibly the most alarming thing that I discovered during my trial of All Access is the fact that, despite CBS advertising the “complete catalogs” of your favorite shows, I found this not to be the case for some currently airing series.
Take Supergirl for example: since the show’s move from its original home on CBS to the CW, the first season of Supergirl is no where to be found on All Access despite it being there a few months ago. And during the first season’s run, only a handful of episodes were available at any given time. Meaning, if someone was to purchase an All Access sub near the end of a show’s season, they would not be able to go and watch that season from the beginning. In fact, for shows currently mid-season, I’m not sure there would be any legal way to do that.
This seems to be true of many (but not all) of CBS’s hit shows including Two Broke Girls (episodes from Season 5, Episode 10 available at the time of writing), The Big Bang Theory (from Season 9, Episode 12), and Elementary (from Season 4, Episode 1). Mysteriously, some shows such as Blue Bloods and The Amazing Race offer up their entire catalog.
The explanation for this might be that Supergirl, The Big Bang Theory, and Two Broke Girls (among other All Access programming that shares the same limited catalog fate) are all owned by Warner Bros. and only distributed by CBS. But what of Elementary, which is produced by CBS Television Studios?
Now, it’s not clear that this restricted catalog model will be applied to Star Trek: Discovery, and in all honesty, we don’t think it will. But the possibility is enough to make one a bit nervous, and it does make me feel a bit taken for a ride when one of All Access’ biggest selling points is the ability to watch all of CBS’s shows on demand.
Why Streaming May Be Better For the Franchise
Love it or hate it, networks pushing their own OTT streaming services may be the way of the future, and distributing Star Trek: Discovery on All Access could end up shaping the new show in many positive tangible ways.
For one thing, the fate of Discovery won’t hinge so heavily on its performance, which is typically driven entirely by ad revenue. In fact, CBS CEO Les Moonves told reporters last month that Discovery is guaranteed to be profitable, in large part due to international revenue via the deal struck with Netflix, saying:
“We’ve licensed our ‘Star Trek’ franchise in the international marketplace, guaranteeing our new series will be profitable even before it launches and begins driving [subscriptions] here in the US on CBS All Access.”
Another interesting twist for Trek is that being an exclusively streaming show, Discovery will not have to conform to typical broadcast standards and practices, which includes language, sex, and violence. As showrunner Bryan Fuller jokingly explained at the TCA Summer Press Tour last week:
“There’s a reason why we call it ‘STD.’ It’s still Star Trek, and we’re not subject to broadcast standards and practices. Hannibal was, and we got away with murder. There will be slightly more graphic content.”
Besides some bonus sex, drugs, and rock and roll, this may also spell out more relaxed restrictions in general for the content creators behind the new series. While CBS is still running the show, they don’t have to appease the censors to the same degree and so may be more forgiving when it comes to content – and even characters – typically considered too racy for Prime Time.
Your Guide to Watching Star Trek: Discovery
How do different content providers stack up?
Consumers may not have a choice in how they watch Star Trek: Discovery. In the US, your only option is All Access. In Canada, you’ll be getting your Trek fix via Bell Media’s cable networks Space (in English) and Z (in French) plus their ad-free VOD service CraveTV. And, much to the chagrin of the North Americans, 188 other countries including the UK and Europe will be watching Discovery on Netflix, again with no ads.
Below we compare the four ways viewers around the world will be tuning in to watch Star Trek: Discovery.
|All Access||CraveTV||Cable TV||Netflix|
|12 minutes of ads||No ads||15 minutes of ads||No ads|
|Mobile app, Browser, Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, Xbox 360, Android TV||Mobile app, Browser, Apple TV, Xbox One, Samsung Smart TVs and Blu-ray Players||Television||Mobile app, Browser, Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV, Fire TV, nexus player, Nvidia Shield, Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, some set top boxes, some Smart TVs, some Blu-ray players|
|Up to 1080 HD streaming available*||Up to 1080 HD streaming available*||Variable stream quality||Up to 1080 HD streaming available*|
|Highly variable audio and video compression quality||Variable audio and video compression quality||Variable compression quality||Good audio and video compression quality|
|Ad-free Star Trek (pre-DSC) library||Ad-free Star Trek (pre-DSC) library||No library||Ad-free Star Trek (pre-DSC) library|
*Netflix, All Access, and CraveTV will all offer 1080p resolution streams of Star Trek Discovery, but all three services note that the actual quality will depend on the user’s internet connection. In addition, the quality of your sound and picture will depend on the compression used at the source, which as we’ve seen is somewhat lacking from All Access.