Hands-on with CBS All Access, the future home of Star Trek

Earlier this week we talked about how CBS is using its new Star Trek series (scheduled to arrive in January 2017) to try to lure fans onto its CBS All Access service. 

Since then I've seen a lot of disgruntled talk from folks who say they're Star Trek fans but who refuse to pay for a service just to watch the new series.

Obviously CBS All Access offers more than just the new Star Trek series, but what, exactly? I decided it was time to take CBS All Access for a spin just to see what you get for your $6/month. Of course a lot can change between now and January 2017 but here is how things stand today.

In 110 cities, you can get a live CBS feed. I'm in Raleigh, NC and I got WRAL, the local CBS affiliate. It does come with a warning that "Live TV programming subject to blackouts."

Next you get current programming the day after it airs on TV. Without All Access, according to the CBS website, you can watch some prime time programs 8 days after they air using the CBS app. That said, the CBS website seems willing to show me pretty much everything the day after it airs. For instance episode 2 of Supergirl aired Monday night; I was able to watch it Tuesday night using the CBS website, or via the CBS app when I was logged into All Access, but not via the app if I wasn't logged in. Confused yet?

Now for the bad news. These new shows have commercials. Yup, CBS All Access is another service that expects you to pay a subscription and still sit through ads. At least there aren't as many as on traditional TV, but it felt like there were more than there are on Hulu.

Third, you get access to CBS backlog of shows. Eight-five shows are listed in the app, covering everything from this year's series like Supergirl and Limitless, stretching all the way back to The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason. Included in that 85 number are specials like Victoria's Secret Fashion Show and the Academy of Country Music Awards. The older shows I popped into (an episode of Cheers and an episode of Wings) didn't have ads, at least. I suppose it's worth mentioning that all of the old Star Trek series are included in this back catalog section.

These old shows are also available on CBS's web site without All Access, but not entire series. For example you can watch 10 episodes of Cheers on the website or via the app without All Access, but 275 (the entire series) with All Access.

It's worth noting that the quality of the stream was excellent. We had that new episode of Supergirl on the DVR and watched it both via All Access (I was using an old Apple TV as my streaming box) and our recorded copy and the streaming version was much crisper and the stream never stuttered or broke up at all. The number of commercials was right on the line of acceptability without driving me to the DVR where I can fast forward through them (as with Hulu, you can't fast forward through ads on CBS All Access).

So my take away from all this that I'm not sure CBS All Access is worth it. There's plenty of content you can watch through the CBS app without subscribing. Sure if you love old CBS shows then you might be in heaven, but even then some of this stuff (like the Star Trek series) is on Netflix or another streaming service. Of course if you're a cord cutter having that live feed might sway you too; it can be nice to watch the news live. I'm interested to see if they blackout football games.

What I was hoping to find, for my $6/month, was a way to watch current CBS shows without any commercials. My naively optimist self even considered that maybe the new Star Trek series was going to be on All Access because it was going to run a full hour rather than the 40 minutes most 'hour-long' TV shows are now (think about that, fully 1/3rd of a typical hour of traditional TV is spent watching, or trying not to watch, ads).

At this point it seems I was wrong. Hulu is the closest model to what CBS All Access is, and no one loves the Hulu model of subscription fee plus ads. I also think these systems need to be simplified. Why are there different offerings if I access CBS via a web browser than there are if I access using their app?

When Star Trek arrives, I'll probably subscribe to CBS All Access to watch it, but I won't be happy about it, and I'm not seeing much reason to subscribe between now and then. I feel like CBS needs to sweeten the pot if they want All Access to thrive.

The good news is, it might feel the same way. In a post Tuesday evening, the New York Times reported that CBS is considering adding more exclusive content to All Access, offering an ad-free option, and bundling CBS All Access with Showtime's streaming service. Any or all of these options feel like smart moves to me (assuming the ad-free option is a modest additional fee, like Hulu's new ad-free option). Give me a little more, CBS, and I might become a subscriber (and then, just maybe, I'll finally cut the cord).

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