The Struggle of 'The Twilight Zone' in the Age of Streaming Services

The Struggle of 'The Twilight Zone' in the Age of Streaming Services

The Struggle of 'The Twilight Zone' in the Age of Streaming Services

Is Jordan Peele’s latest project buzz-y enough to be a “system-seller” for CBS All Access?

Robert Falconer/CBS

File this under "yet another sentence that wouldn't have made any sense in the year 2000": Tonight, the third episode of Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone reboot will become available to stream on CBS All Access. On the bright side, it's by far the best of the series' first four episodes. On the not-as-bright side, it falls apart in the last act and is still by far the best of the series' first four episodes. The Twilight Zone may lie between science and superstition, but creatively it lands squarely in the most densely populated territory in television, Prettygoodistan.

The question is whether Pretty Good is enough. With the first phase of streaming TV drawing to a close, viewers have a much different set of choices to make then they did back when House of Cards first hit Netflix—and increasingly, a platform will live or die by whether its marquee shows become seen as indispensable.

While CBS All Access launched in 2014, it didn't introduce its first original show until 2017, and The Twilight Zone is its eighth since then. Yes, eighth. While Star Trek: Discovery and Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight are the platform's best-known shows, there's also urban fantasy Tell Me a Story, 1930s occult drama Strange Angel, Funny or Die comedy No Activity, a collection of Star Trek shorts called Short Treks, and the one-and-done rust-belt mystery One Dollar.

Didn't know there were that many? You're not alone. But even if those other shows may not have driven conversation, they didn't necessarily need to: CBS's early goals were striking for their modesty. First the company wanted to reach 8 million streaming subscribers by 2020—something it managed by the end of 2018, though that number includes both CBS All Access and Showtime—and its current goal is 25 million by 2022, which is close to what Hulu currently boasts.

Yet, while the streaming platform grows, an oligarchy solidifies around it. CBS has reached 8 million digital subscribers? Netflix added more than that many in one quarter alone. Hulu and Amazon are by now well entrenched, both critically and commercially. Add in forthcoming streaming services from Disney, WarnerMedia, and Apple—not to mention whatever over-the-top service you get your live TV from—and figuring out your monthly television offerings becomes a matter of some tough choices and possibly an Excel spreadsheet.

Increasingly, those tough choices look like something out of the gaming world. New videogame consoles traditionally depended on a "system seller," that one game that was compelling enough to make it worth the price of the console itself. Think Wii Sports for the Nintendo Wii, Grand Theft Auto III for the PlayStation 2, Gears of War for the Xbox 360. Just like the hoary "killer app" discussion around any new technology, it was a way to identify and anoint the best-in-class experience on a platform.

That didn't happen on TV. With the exception of premium channels like HBO, television has always been a land of monolithic accessibility. If you had cable, you had cable, and access to all the shows and cultural conversations contained therein. Now, though, each service brings with it its own decision to add yet another six or 10 dollars to your aggregate TV bill—and so the "system seller" gave way to the "service seller."

Now, each streaming service brings with it its own decision to add yet another six or 10 dollars to your aggregate TV bill—and so the "system seller" has given way to the "service seller."

HBO Now had Game of Thrones. Hulu had Handmaid's Tale. Netflix originally had House of Cards, but by this point is churning out so many shows and movies with so many viewpoints and sensibilities that it's essentially become a cable provider of its own. Disney+ will offer Star Wars shows and a home for Marvel, Pixar, and other Disney-owned properties; WarnerMedia famously wants to pull Friends away from Netflix for its own streaming library.

This is where CBS All Access finds itself. Early on, Discovery and sports emerged to be the platform's most valuable properties. In January of this year, CBS announced that Discovery's second-season premiere and the AFC Championship game combined to drive more new subscribers in a single weekend than ever before. (CBS All Access also streams an extensive library of shows originally aired on CBS, as well as live sports that CBS holds broadcast rights to, most notably the NFL.)

Granted, the Star Trek universe and the NFL aren't exactly high-risk enterprises. (As intellectual property, that is; playing in them is another story.) It's shows like The Twilight Zone that will more acutely affect CBS All Access' fortunes: enough culture cachet to ensure awareness among possible subscribers, with a buzzy and respected creator like Peele attached. The last variable? Word of mouth.

So far, reviews have been mixed, and online conversation hasn't managed to drown out those around other shows. That's key, because while the show is ambitious, and tinsels its early episodes with enough Twilight Zone Easter eggs and connected-universe hints to intrigue fans of the original series, tonight's episode is the first one that might be able to bring in new viewers.

Written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and starring Sanaa Lathan as a woman driving her son (Damson Idris) to college, "Replay" is a chilling meditation on how racism taints policing and continues to imperil the black community. Grim and terrifying in all the ways that have made Peele's post-comedy career so urgent, it's somehow all the scarier for its lack of grotesquerie: It doesn't need Get Out's satire or Us' funhouse doppelgängers to unsettle you. All the more shame, then, that it loses its bite in its final scenes, but late-stage missteps won't detract from its potential to bring in curious viewers.

CBS All Access has yet to release any specific numbers so far—no doubt following Netflix's frustrating example—but according to a spokesperson, The Twilight Zone "drove the most unique viewers on a premiere day for a CBS All Access original series to date." A relative success? Absolutely. An absolute success? Depends on the ruler you're using.

"I think multiple players are going to thrive," said CBS Interactive president and COO Marc DeBevoise, talking with Adweek. "As we like to say, there's a rocket ship taking off and we have our seat. Others may be on the rocket ship too, but we're going to the next level of whatever the thing may be, and we've secured our seats on there." The problem isn't whether you have a seat; it's whether viewers come along for the ride. Especially when that ride is to another dimension.


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