CBS All Access: Is it worth your $6 a month?

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A live broadcast of "The Price is Right" streaming via KOVR-TV Sacramento on the CBS service "All Access" (Photo: The Desk)

A live broadcast of “The Price is Right” streaming via KOVR-TV Sacramento on the CBS service “All Access” (Photo: The Desk)

Editor’s note: CBS All Access has become a more-visible streaming product since this post was first published in October 2014, and with it has come a number of Google searches for reviews and technical support on the service. The Desk has received numerous phone calls and e-mails from CBS All Access customers inquiring about technical and billing support. For assistance with your service, please check out the CBS All Access FAQ page by clicking here. To sign up for a free trial, click here.

On Wednesday, CBS became the latest company to jump into the premium streaming video environment with the launch of its “All Access” service. For $6 a month, CBS offers users access to thousands of episodes of classic television programs from the CBS library as well as a handful of new and past episodes from shows currently broadcast by the network. In addition, CBS is making live broadcasts from more than a dozen television markets available online — a first for the network.

In releasing “All Access,” CBS is finally acknowledging that streaming media solutions are the future for broadcasters. While other networks are snuggling even closer to pay TV platforms through the “TV everywhere” business model (tying access to live video and on-demand programming to a cable or satellite subscription), CBS went in the opposite direction with All Access: The service seems targeted at cord-cutters who want to watch live and on-demand television programming without paying $70 a month to cable.

As a cord-cutter myself, the launch of a standalone live-on demand hybrid product from one of the country’s major broadcast networks is exciting — it signals that big programming providers are starting to embrace the Internet as they look beyond cable and satellite for longevity. But after playing around with All Access for a day, I found the service falls short of being a complete solution separate from cable — and in many cases, the product doesn’t live up to many of the promises made in CBS’s press release.

CBS classic archive

For years, CBS was a network synonymous with groundbreaking entertainment programming. CBS touched on many hit shows over the years, even some that appeared on other networks — among them, “I Love Lucy,” television’s first syndicated program; the hit teen dramas “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” the science fiction show “Star Trek” and more recent hits like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Good Wife.”

These shows and several others (“Frasier,” “Taxi,” “Survivor”) are part of CBS’s massive backdated library made available through the All Access service. Hundreds of classic TV episodes are available to stream on a computer and through the CBS app commercial-free with an All Access subscription — and CBS promises many hit programs that currently air on the network will be made available on the service as well.

No on-demand episodes -- just clips -- of popular CBS programs including "The Big Bang Theory" and "Mike & Molly."

Few on-demand episodes of popular CBS programs like “The Big Bang Theory.” (Photo: The Desk)

But that’s where the service starts to fall short on its promises: You won’t find many current episodes of hit CBS shows like “The Big Bang Theory” (only five episodes from Season 8 are currently available), “Two and a Half Men” (only one episode), “Mike and Molly” (only clips, no full episodes) or “Two Broke Girls (again, only clips). CBS promises that full episodes of these shows will be made available one day after they air on network affiliates, though it is unclear how many of these shows will be catalogued for All Access subscribers and for how long.

Even CBS’s classic library leaves a lot to be desired: Many of these shows are already available to stream on other services that offer a lot more programming for just a few more dollars. “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are all available to stream commercial-free on Netflix; back episodes of “The Good Wife” and “I Love Lucy” are available on Hulu Plus. Both services offer television programming and Hollywood films from other networks and studios each for under $10 a month, while All Access limits users to just shows from the CBS archive. The additional programming options alone means customers are better off paying an extra $3-4 a month for Netflix or Hulu Plus (or an extra $10 a month for both) over All Access.

CBS live television stream

Along with thousands of on-demand episodes from past and present CBS shows, the network is also offering a live television simulcast of fourteen CBS-owned local stations.

Users who live in or around Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and San Francisco. CBS promises additional areas will be covered over time as future agreements are reached with affiliates owned by other companies.

Unlike similar solutions offered by other networks (notably, “Watch ABC“), the online simulcast isn’t tied down to a pay TV service, meaning the live stream is available to All Access subscribers regardless of whether or not they have a cable or satellite subscription.

CBS uses geolocation to determine where an All Access subscriber lives and which CBS station is available to stream, if any. This makes for an interesting loophole: Using an Android tablet and an app called “Fake GPS,” I was able to watch local CBS stations from all over the country by virtually “moving” to another metropolitan area. Where I should be limited to just the CBS station that serves my community (in my case, KOVR), I was successfully able to watch KPIX in San Francisco, KCBS in Los Angeles, KYW-TV in Philadelphia and WCBS in New York (a similar loophole allowed me to watch New York broadcasts on another service called Aereo long after I had moved to California; Aereo shut down earlier this year).

A live television broadcast from Philadelphia station KWY-TV, access from San Francisco via a geolocation loophole. (Photo: The Desk)

A live television broadcast from Philadelphia station KWY-TV, accessed from San Francisco via a geolocation loophole. Despite the caption, the station is actually airing a soap opera. (Photo: The Desk)

This loophole (which is legal) could work to the advantage of CBS enthusiasts west of the Central Time Zone: Instead of waiting two or three hours for the latest episode of “The Good Wife,” a user could virtually move to any number of cities with a CBS-owned station east of the Mississippi and watch live television programming in tandem with those on the opposite coast.

In the future, CBS might close this loophole by tying live video streams to a customer’s billing address. This could be problematic for many customers though: The service is built on the idea that a customer can access anything he or she wants to from any device at any time. Anchoring the live stream to a billing address would almost certainly prevent frequent travelers from accessing one of the core features of the service, which would significantly devalue the product.

College sports, but no football

The biggest disadvantage to All Access was conveniently left out of the network’s announcement Wednesday morning: CBS does not have the right to stream games from the National Football League, so even if you live in one of the fourteen markets where you can watch live television through All Access, you won’t be able to watch football games when they are broadcast on Thursday and Sunday nights.

CBS does not have streaming rights to NFL games, so don't expect to see them on All Access. (Photo: The Desk)

CBS does not have streaming rights to NFL games, so don’t expect to see them on All Access. (Photo: The Desk)

In a statement, a CBS executive told the New York Times that it is discussing the prospect of bringing NFL games to the service sometime in the future. This seems very unlikely to happen anytime soon: The NFL just renewed a multi-year deal with satellite company DirecTV for the broadcast and online streaming rights to live out-of-market football games (a little-known secret is you can sign up for the same Sunday Ticket package without a DirecTV subscription).

That’s not to say All Access is devoid of sports altogether: CBS has the streaming rights to college athletic events, including college football, and those events will be available to stream on All Access via the local broadcasters. That alone could make the $6 a month price tag worth it to college sports fans.

The verdict: A good start, but comes up short

If you’re a cord-cutter, chances are you’ve invested in a decent antenna for over-the-air broadcasts and have access to either Netflix or Hulu Plus (or both). If that’s the case, skip All Access — many of the classic CBS shows are available on Netflix and Hulu, and the live stream video service doesn’t offer anything you wouldn’t otherwise get with your antenna (in fact, it offers less).

On the other hand, if you live on the west coast and you can’t wait three hours for your soap operas and prime-time TV shows, or if you’re a college sports enthusiast who wants to watch live games on your phone or tablet, then $6 a month is a small price to pay for the convenience of early access and mobile entertainment. If that’s you, then give All Access a try — CBS is offering a one-week free trial for new subscribers.

Overall, “All Access” is a good (and noble) effort by a major television network to de-couple itself from pay television services, on which it often hinges for survivability. But “All Access” fails to provide unique classic programming and an adequate selection of current shows, and while the live streaming service is nice, it’s simply can’t compete with “free.” In the end, you’re much better off buying an antenna and spending a few dollars more on another streaming service.

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