Yellowstone is Paramount's biggest show, but that doesn't mean you'll find it on Paramount Plus.
Kevin Costner stars in Yellowstone, which was the most-watched scripted show on cable TV last year. Paramount Network
Yellowstone, the hit cowboy drama on Paramount Network, returned for its fourth season Sunday. The double-episode premiere revealed who survived last year’s cliff-hanger finale — an episode that drew in the biggest audience of any scripted TV show on cable in 2020. For people aiming to catch up on past seasons or stay on top of new episodes as they hit, streaming service Paramount Plus would seem like the natural place to turn. But counterintuitively, the one TV show most associated with the Paramount name is nowhere to be found on Paramount Plus.
If you want to binge Yellowstone’s back catalog, you need to mosey over to Paramount Plus rival Peacock, which has an exclusive deal to be the only subscription streaming service with the first three seasons. If you want to stream Yellowstone’s new episodes, then you’ll need to try unlocking the Paramount Network app, not Paramount Plus. And after the fourth season concludes, that whole batch of new Yellowstone episodes will move over to a subscription streaming service — but again, it’ll be Peacock.
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, you need to check out HBO Max, for example. 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 can make more money — 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.
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 particular concoction of TV and movies will hook you on its own vision for TV’s future. But byzantine licensing deals like ViacomCBS’ for Yellowstone underscore that even when a new service like Paramount Plus launches by rallying around its own content, it doesn’t necessarily make it much easier for you to find and watch your favorite shows and movies online.
Where you can watch Yellowstone
The main distinction to understand when it comes to how to stream Yellowstone is that Paramount Plus is different from Paramount Network, which is where Yellowstone premiered its fourth season Sunday with two new episodes.
On Paramount Plus, you can’t stream Yellowstone — old episodes or new — at all.
Paramount Network is a traditional cable channel available to people who pay for it through a live-TV provider. Paramount Network’s shows and movies, including the latest episodes of Yellowstone, are available to stream on the web at paramountnetwork.com or its Paramount Network app. But generally these are available to stream only for those people who are paying for the channel already with one of those live-TV subscriptions, such as cable, satellite or a live-channel streaming service like YouTube TV or Philo.
And if you want to stream the the rest of the episodes of Yellowstone’s fourth season as they air, the only place to stream them at first will be on Paramount Network’s channel, website or app. And these Yellowstone episodes will be available to stream 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.
If you want to binge previous seasons of Yellowstone, the Paramount Network app and website have those too.
But if you’re a cord-cutter or otherwise don’t have access to Paramount Network, then you need to go to Peacock to stream the first three seasons. 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 be sometime after the season finale concludes on Paramount Network.
So what does Paramount Plus actually have related to Yellowstone? Eventually, spinoffs. On Dec. 19, Paramount Plus will begin 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 will premiere 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 you can’t watch Yellowstone 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 getting their titles back to their own services.
Disney has been firm in letting its deals expire if they license out its shows and movies 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 back 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 this year 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, giving it opportunities to boost HBO Max with a popular franchise.
Paramount Plus, however, hasn’t been as aggressive, neither in keeping its top properties within its own fold nor reclaiming ones it’s licensed 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 farming out titles like Yellowstone, South Park and others to Paramount Plus’ direct rivals is part of it too. When you grant your own programming to your own service exclusively, you forsake piles of that 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, sounding the same refrain Thursday. The company’s licensing strategy has “shifted to become much more focused” on having its own franchises on its own streaming service, he said. 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 believes it may be able to draw in more new members if it lets 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 when the Yellowstone prequel 1883 arrives on Paramount Plus in December, chronicling the Dutton family’s arrival in Montana more than a century ago, the unacquainted will need to go elsewhere to figure out who the Duttons even are.