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If Yellowstone Ends This Year, It Will Have Lived, Died and Never Hit Paramount Plus

Paramount's biggest hit, counterintutively, doesn't stream on Paramount Plus -- and maybe never will.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
8 min read
John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, sits in a camp chair on a Montana prairie.

Kevin Costner stars in Yellowstone. 

Paramount Network

Yellowstone isn't just Paramount Network's biggest show -- it's the biggest hit of its kind on all cable television. Its fifth-season premiere in November drew the biggest audience of any TV show last year

The show is currently on hiatus, taking a break between its midseason finale on New Year's Day and its return sometime in the middle of year with the second half of the season. And, reportedly, it's possible this fifth season could be its last: According to Deadline, Paramount and creator Taylor Sheridan are plotting a potential end to the series in the midst of difficult contract negotiations with star Kevin Costner. (Paramount said in statement that it has no news to report regarding Yellowstone continuation or conclusion and that "Costner is a big part of Yellowstone," something the company said it hopes will be "the case for a long time to come.")

Of course, Paramount Plus would seem like the natural place to turn to for anyone hoping to stream season 5 and the show's past episodes. But, counterintuitively, the one show most associated with the Paramount name is nowhere to be found on Paramount Plus

If you want to watch the new season, the Paramount Network app or website will be your only streaming option for months. If you want to catch up on the previous seasons, you'll need to pay for rival streaming service Peacock, which has an exclusive deal to be the only subscription service streaming Yellowstone.

But you won't find any Yellowstone on Paramount Plus, except spinoffs. 

If the series were to end with the fifth season's finale later this year, the Paramount Network's biggest hit will have lived and died without ever touching Paramount Plus. 

As confusing as that is, it was somewhat by design. Having a hit show on a traditional cable channel like Paramount Network is a big business, and so is the revenue generated by licensing shows to other services. Paramount placed a bet a while ago -- before it was clear just how big Yellowstone would get -- that some top-shelf programs could be more valuable if they're available somewhere other than Paramount Plus. In this case, that meant Paramount's biggest show isn't on Paramount Plus at all. (In retrospect, that may have been an especially bad bet.)

Paramount Plus hopes its own particular concoction of TV and movies will hook you on its own vision for TV's future, like competitors Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Peacock and Discovery Plus are trying to do too. But byzantine licensing deals like Yellowstone's underscore that even when a service like Paramount Plus rallies around its own content, that doesn't necessarily make it simpler for you to find and watch your favorite shows and movies online. 

Where to stream Yellowstone season 5 online

If you're trying to hunt down Yellowstone to stream, the main distinction to know is that Paramount Plus is different from Paramount Network. While Paramount Plus is a subscription streaming service, Paramount Network is a traditional cable channel available to people who pay for it through a live-TV provider. Paramount Network is where Yellowstone's new season runs first. 

The second distinction to know is that Peacock is the only subscription streaming service with Yellowstone episodes. On Paramount Plus, you can't stream Yellowstone -- old episodes or new ones -- at all. 

Paramount Network for season 5 

If you want to watch any new, fifth-season episodes of Yellowstone, you'll need to turn to Paramount Network's channel, its website at paramountnetwork.com or its Paramount Network app. 

Important note about timing: Yellowstone is televised on the Paramount Network on Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT and 7 p.m. CT, but streaming availability doesn't start on the site and app until the day after. That means Sunday's shows become available to stream Monday -- you can't stream them the same night they're on television. 

To stream the fifth season, you'll need to be an "authenticated" viewer -- that is, somebody who can log in with live-TV service credentials to prove you're already paying for Paramount Network. Most often, that means having cable, satellite or a live-channel streaming service like YouTube TV or Philo. (Philo is one of the cheapest online options to get access to Paramount Network; it also offers a weeklong free trial.) 

One exception: Paramount Network made the first episode of the new season available to stream free on the network's website and the Paramount Network app for anybody in the US. Even if you're not paying for a traditional TV service that includes Paramount Network, you can still watch the first episode of the season. You can't, however, watch any of the other episides unless you have a sign-in to get past the paywall.

Peacock for seasons 1 through 4

The first four seasons of Yellowstone are available to stream on Peacock, a streaming service run by NBCUniversal. Every episode of Yellowstone is paywalled: You must be on one of its paid subscription tiers that typically cost either $5 a month with ads or $10 a month ad-free. (Some people who have Comcast or Spectrum can get a deal on Peacock's premium tiers.) 

Paramount Plus for... spinoffs

So if Paramount Plus doesn't have Yellowstone, what does it have? To compensate for not having Yellowstone itself, Paramount Plus has been firing up a ton of spinoffs, prequels and spiritually similar programming by its creator, Taylor Sheridan, that are exclusive to its service. 

The first was a Yellowstone prequel titled 1883, which focuses on the Dutton family more than a century earlier as they establish the Yellowstone Ranch. Another prequel series, 1923, features stories about later members of the Dutton family, starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. And Paramount has ordered a whole stable of shows either related to Yellowstone or unrelated but produced by Sheridan. 

Why Yellowstone isn't streaming the one place you'd expect

Every new streaming service launching out of Hollywood makes its own judgment about how much programming to keep for itself. Yellowstone's absence from Paramount Plus is a confusing quirk stemming from a licensing deal the company struck with NBCUniversal's Peacock in 2020, more than a year before Paramount Plus launched. 

As Yellowstone has soared in popularity the last two years, Paramount's decision to license it out (to what is now a direct streaming competitor) has emerged as a strategic black eye. And for fans, it has created a frustrating maze to figure out where to stream Yellowstone and related programming.

Unlike Paramount, some streaming services have been aggressive in getting their titles back to their own services. 

Disney has been firm in letting its deals expire for anything it previously licensed out to other services. That included a major deal that let Netflix stream Disney's theatrical movies for an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year over four years. But Disney Plus wanted to become a reliable hub for its own catalog, so Disney let that Netflix deal run out and stopped shopping those blockbusters to rival services.

NBCUniversal, in addition to licensing Yellowstone for its Peacock service, won the rights to its own show The Office back from Netflix at the beginning of 2021 so Peacock could stream the sitcom exclusively. 

And WarnerMedia's HBO Max has repeatedly clawed back rights to all eight Harry Potter movies from NBCUniversal and Peacock. WarnerMedia's Warner Bros. licensed all those movies to NBCUniversal years ago in an epic deal. That put NBCUniversal's Peacock in line to stream them rather than HBO Max. But WarnerMedia has snagged them back repeatedly, in an effort to boost HBO Max with a popular franchise. 

Paramount Plus, however, has been more willing to license its top titles elsewhere. 

Part of the reason is that licensing can be a lucrative business. In 2021 (the most recent year with reported data), Paramount made $6.5 billion in revenue from licensing, nearly a quarter of the company's total -- and that's billions more than the company generated from streaming. That money comes from an array of licenses, from TV syndication to Paw Patrol stuffed animals and costumes. But part of licensing is also farming out titles like Yellowstone and others to Paramount Plus' direct rivals. When you grant your own programming to your own service exclusively, you forsake money you could've hauled in if you'd licensed it to someone else. 

And Paramount has a big back catalog to tap into: roughly 140,000 TV episodes and 4,000 films. The company has said it doesn't want all that on Paramount Plus. "We can't keep all that for ourself. It doesn't make sense," CEO Bob Bakish said as Paramount Plus was preparing for launch. "It's too much."

Bakish has repeatedly indicated the company's strategy is "evolving" in terms of how much of its own programming it should license and how much it should keep for itself. The company's licensing strategy has "shifted to become much more focused" on having its own franchises on its own streaming service, he said in 2021. But the "legacy deals" the company struck before the launch of Paramount Plus can have a long tail, he added. And last year, Bakish said it was "unfortunate" to strike a Yellowstone licensing deal with Peacock in the midst of closing a major merger.

However, beyond the money Paramount makes by licensing, Paramount Plus also believed it might be able to draw in more new members if it let other, bigger services have some of its titles to stream. Bakish has noted that other platforms can expand the audience for an older show so that its reboots and spinoffs have a bigger fan base for Paramount Plus. 

It's a perverse sort of logic. But Netflix has more than 230 million members worldwide, versus Paramount Plus' 46 million. Interest in Avatar: The Last Airbender surged in 2020 when the show hit Netflix, certainly helping motivate Paramount's 2021 decision to launch an entire new studio dedicated to fresh Avatar-related programming. 

Unfortunately, Paramount isn't gaining much reach for Yellowstone by having it on Peacock. Peacock is even smaller than Paramount Plus: Only about 20 million subscribers are on Peacock's paid tiers that unlock Yellowstone, less than half the size of Paramount Plus' membership base. 

Most recently, Paramount has started reuniting some of its major franchises with its own streaming service. South Park is slowly untangling from HBO Max to make its way to Paramount Plus, the company said last year. In 2024, new South Park episodes will have their streaming premieres on Paramount Plus rather than on HBO Max. Then in 2025, Paramount Plus will get the full back-catalog of South Park in the US. 

But so far, Paramount has been silent about clawing back the rights to Yellowstone. 

That means that for new fans of any of the Yellowstone prequels on Paramount Plus, as they watch the chronicles of the early Dutton family, they'll need to go elsewhere to dive into who the modern-day Duttons even are.