Microsoft buys Activision Blizzard Free COVID-19 test kits Garmin Fenix 7 and Epix Change these iOS 15 settings on your iPhone Marvel's Moon Knight trailer Daniel Radcliffe is playing Weird Al
CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

Why Yellowstone, Paramount's biggest show, doesn't stream on Paramount Plus

Yellowstone's fourth-season finale hit Sunday, but you can't stream the biggest Paramount show on Paramount Plus. Here's where you can stream it -- and why.

yellowstone-ep302-cm-104-r.jpg

Kevin Costner stars in Yellowstone, one of the most-watched scripted shows on TV.  

Paramount Network

Yellowstone is, by far, the Paramount Network's biggest hit. It's also one of the biggest hits on cable, period. Season three's cliffhanger finale drew the biggest audience of any scripted TV show on cable in 2020, with 7.6 million viewers watching it. Its fourth season premiere in November nearly doubled that, with 14.7 million viewers. And streaming service Paramount Plus would seem like the natural place to turn for anyone hoping to watch the the fourth season or its finale, which just hit Sunday. 

But, counterintuitively, the one show most associated with the Paramount name is nowhere to be found on Paramount Plus

If you want to stream Yellowstone's finale, then you'll need to try unlocking the Paramount Network app, not Paramount Plus. 

If you want to binge Yellowstone's back catalog, you can watch it on the Paramount Network app (if you can unlock it), or mosey over to Paramount Plus rival Peacock, which has an exclusive deal as the only subscription streaming service with the first three seasons. And, eventually, all of Yellowstone's fourth season will pop up on Peacock -- but not Paramount Plus. 

As confusing as that is, it's by design. Yellowstone isn't the only high-profile ViacomCBS title missing from Paramount Plus and streaming elsewhere: If you're looking for Comedy Central's South Park, for example, you need to check out HBO Max. Content licensing is a big business for ViacomCBS, and so is the revenue generated by having a hit show on a traditional cable network like Paramount Network. ViacomCBS placed a bet that some top-shelf programs could be more valuable -- and reach more eyeballs -- if they're available somewhere other than Paramount Plus, even if it means a big Paramount show like Yellowstone isn't on Paramount Plus at all. (In retrospect, it may have been an epically bad bet.)

Like the rest in the parade of new streaming services -- including Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Peacock and Discovery Plus -- Paramount Plus hopes its own particular concoction of TV and movies will hook you on its own vision for TV's future. 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 you can stream Yellowstone season 4

The main distinction to know is that Paramount Plus is different from Paramount Network, which is where Yellowstone's finale and the rest of season 4 aired. Paramount Network is a traditional cable channel available to people who pay for it through a live-TV provider. 

On Paramount Plus, you can't stream Yellowstone -- old episodes or new ones -- at all. 

If you want to stream any episodes from season 4, the only place to watch is on Paramount Network's channel, website or app. And the latest season of Yellowstone streams only for "authenticated" online viewers -- that is, people who can log in with their live-TV service's credentials to prove they're already paying for Paramount Network. 

Paramount Network's shows and movies, including the Yellowstone finale and every other episode, are available to stream on the web at paramountnetwork.com or its Paramount Network app. But to be an "authenticated" viewer, you must be paying for the channel already with a live-TV subscription, such as 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 put the premiere episode of Yellowstone's fourth season outside its paywall, so anybody is able to stream this episode -- titled Half the Money -- free on Paramount Network's app or website. 

But if you want to watch the finale or any other episodes besides the fourth-season premiere, you'll need to have a pay-TV subscription to log in. 

If you're a cord-cutter or otherwise don't have access to Paramount Network, and you want to binge the first three seasons, then you need to go to Peacock. The fourth season will stream on Peacock eventually too. Peacock hasn't announced the timing that it will begin streaming Yellowstone's fourth season yet, but you can expect it will likely be months from now. 

So what does Paramount Plus actually have related to Yellowstone? Spinoffs. On Dec. 19, Paramount Plus began streaming a prequel titled 1883, which focuses on the Dutton family more than a century ago as they move west and establish the Yellowstone Ranch. And on Nov. 14, Paramount Plus premiered Mayor of Kingstown, a drama series co-created by Yellowstone's creator Taylor Sheridan; while Mayor of Kingstown isn't directly tied to Yellowstone, Paramount Plus is pitching it as a bit of a spiritual spinoff. 

Why Yellowstone doesn't stream on Paramount Plus

Every new streaming service launching out of Hollywood makes its own judgment about how much, and what, to keep for itself. 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 occasionally snagged them back, in an effort to boost HBO Max with a popular franchise. 

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

Part of the reason is that licensing out titles can be a lucrative business. So far this year, ViacomCBS made $4.6 billion from licensing, almost a quarter of the company's total revenue. That money comes from an array of licenses, from TV syndication to Paw Patrol stuffed animals and costumes. But part of it is also farming out titles like Yellowstone, South Park 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 ViacomCBS has a big back catalog to tap into: roughly 140,000 TV episodes and 4,000 films. The company 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 a year ago, as Paramount Plus was preparing for launch. "It's too much."

Bakish has repeatedly said 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 November. But the "legacy deals" the company struck before the launch of Paramount Plus can have a long tail, he added. 

However, beyond the money ViacomCBS 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 213 million subscribers worldwide, whereas Paramount Plus has fewer -- probably far fewer -- than 47 million. ViacomCBS is betting that renting the back catalog of Nickelodeon's iCarly to Netflix may help spark a wider fandom, which in turn may be attracted to Paramount Plus for its exclusive reboot of the series. Interest in Avatar: The Last Airbender surged last year when the show hit Netflix, certainly helping motivate ViacomCBS' decision to launch an entire new studio dedicated to fresh Avatar-related programming. 

But that strategy also means that for new fans of Yellowstone prequel 1883 on Paramount Plus, as they watch the chronicles of the Dutton family's arrival in Montana more than a century ago, they'll need to go elsewhere to figure out who the Duttons even are.