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Why Yellowstone, Paramount's biggest show, isn't on Paramount Plus

ViacomCBS is betting Yellowstone is more valuable off Paramount Plus than on it.

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Kevin Costner stars in Yellowstone, which was the most-watched scripted show on cable TV last year.  

Paramount Network

Paramount Plus launched Thursday, replacing CBS All Access with a new name and a bigger library to stream. But missing from its widened selection is the single TV show most associated with the Paramount name right now: Yellowstone. The epic cowboy drama has been a breakaway hit for the Paramount Network, one of ViacomCBS' cable channels. 

Paramount Plus will have a new Yellowstone prequel to stream later this year, with another spinoff to come -- but if you want to binge Yellowstone itself, you need to mosey over to Paramount Plus' rival Peacock, which has the exclusive rights to stream the first three seasons. When Yellowstone returns after its cliffhanger finale -- an episode that drew in the biggest audience of any scripted TV show on cable last year -- you can expect season 4 will be on Peacock too.  

And Yellowstone isn't the only high-profile ViacomCBS program that's streaming elsewhere. If you're looking for Comedy Central's South Park, you need to check out HBO Max. Paramount Plus may be rebooting Nickelodeon teen sitcom iCarly, but if you're reliving the original right now, you're probably watching it on Netflix, the biggest subscription streaming competitor in the market. iCarly's first two season are among the most-watched programs on Netflix in the US right now. 

As confusing as it is, that's by design. Content licensing is a big business for ViacomCBS, and for the time being, ViacomCBS is betting that top-shelf programs can make more money -- and reach more eyeballs -- if they're off Paramount Plus rather than on it. 

These streaming-license deals are a lucrative business, one that's been growing in opportunity as a parade of deep-pocketed tech and media companies have been launching a flood of new services, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "streaming wars." Disney PlusHBO MaxApple TV PlusPeacockDiscovery Plus and now Paramount Plus are all taking on stalwarts like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and they're all shoveling yet more money into programming they make themselves -- or license from others. Like all those that came before, Paramount Plus hopes its particular concoction of TV shows, movies and originals will hook you on its vision for TV's future. 

But byzantine licenses like ViacomCBS' underscore that even when a new service like Paramount Plus launches by rallying around its own content, it doesn't necessarily simplify how many services you must use to find and watch your favorite shows and movies online. 

Clawing back

Every new streaming service launching out of Hollywood makes its own judgment about how much, and what, to keep for itself. 

Disney, for example, has been firm in letting its big licensing deals run out, including a major deal with Netflix that streamed its theatrical movies for an estimated $200 million to $300 million a year over four years. With those blockbusters reserved for its own service, Disney Plus wanted to become a reliable hub for the back catalogs of all its major franchises. 

NBCUniversal, in addition to licensing Yellowstone for its Peacock service, won the rights to its own show The Office from Netflix at the beginning of this year so Peacock could stream the sitcom exclusively. And HBO Max clawed back the rights to all eight Harry Potter movies (temporarily) from NBCUniversal so they'd be available to stream when the Max at launch. 

But Paramount Plus hasn't been nearly as aggressive at keeping its top properties within its own fold or reclaiming ones it has licensed elsewhere. With titles like Yellowstone, South Park, iCarly and many others farmed out to others, Viacom CBS made nearly $6 billion from licensing last year, almost one-quarter of the company's total revenue. 

"It remains to be seen how much ViacomCBS is willing to risk its existing high-margin licensing business, especially with its current Showtime and key CBS programs already sold around the world," Robert Fishman, an analyst at MoffettNathanson, said in a note last week. 

ViacomCBS has said its strategy is "evolving" about how much of its own programming it should license to itself. When you grant your own programming to your own service, you forsake piles of money you could haul in if you'd licensed it to someone else instead. And ViacomCBS has a big back catalog to tap into: roughly 140,000 TV episodes and 4,000 films. 

But ViacomCBS doesn't want all that on Paramount Plus. 

"We can't keep all that for ourself. It doesn't make sense," ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in November. "It's too much."

So only a fraction of it is available on Paramount Plus, which is trumpeting 30,000 episodes and 2,500 movies. (And many of the movies on Paramount Plus won't be ViacomCBS' own; that influx of 2,500 films is part of a licensing arrangement ViacomCBS struck with Epix, bringing in movies from an array of studios.) 

However, beyond the money ViacomCBS makes by licensing, Paramount Plus also believes it may be able to draw in more new members if it lets other, bigger services have those top-tier 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 200 million worldwide subscribers. Paramount Plus has fewer -- probably far fewer -- than 30 million. ViacomCBS is betting that renting iCarly to Netflix, where it's one of the most-watched titles right now, could pay off with more fans down the line who may turn to Paramount Plus for the series reboot. Interest in Avatar: The Last Airbender surged last year when the show hit Netflix -- certainly helping motivate ViacomCBS' decision last week to launch an entire new studio dedicated to fresh Avatar-related programming, much (but not all) of which will be on Paramount Plus. 

But Yellowstone didn't go to Peacock to reach more eyeballs. Peacock has only 22 million people signed up so far, and even fewer subscribed to its paid tier that unlocks access to Yellowstone. 

And so when that Yellowstone prequel Y:1883 arrives on Paramount Plus later this year, chronicling the Dutton family's arrival in Montana more than a century ago, the unacquainted will need to stream elsewhere to figure out who the Duttons even are.