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CBS will let you watch sports news — but not live games — with its new free streaming service

CBS Sports HQ won’t compete with CBS, which is the point.

Three male sports commentators sit behind a desk on the set of CBS Sports HQ. The headline at the bottom of the screen read, “Comparing the QBs: Sam Darnold.”
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

In 2014, HBO said it would finally let viewers subscribe to the service, over the web, without buying any other TV channels. Showtime and CBS followed soon after.

And then ... not so much.

It’s possible that, one day, the TV Industrial Complex that requires viewers to subscribe to bundles of channels will completely break apart. For now, it is still hanging together: If you want to watch Disney’s ESPN, you’re probably going to end up paying for the Disney Channel, too. If you like NBCUniversal’s* Bravo, you have to pay for NBC. Etc.

In the meantime, TV programmers are trying to figure out ways to create new services that sell stuff in addition to the programming bundles they already sell. Stuff that doesn’t compete with their core product.

AMC and FX, for instance, both sell ad-free versions of their networks — but only to people who are already subscribing to the regular versions of the same networks. In the very near future, Disney is going to launch ESPN Plus, a $5-a-month subscription service that gives you stuff ESPN doesn’t already put on its existing linear or digital channels.

And today, CBS is launching CBS Sports HQ, a free streaming service that carries “live news and reporting, game previews, post-game analysis, must-see highlights, projections and in-depth statistical breakdowns” — but not the expensive pro and college games CBS shows live on its main channel.

That sounds a lot like what ESPN used to be, back when ESPN was first ascendant and “SportsCenter” was something you tuned into because you couldn’t get timely highlights and updates any other way.

But that was a long time ago, and now it’s basically impossible not to see highlights when you skim Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any corner of the internet.

There’s also an existing version of this concept, backed by Sports Illustrated and many of the major sports leagues. But it turns out 120 Sports, which launched in 2014, rebranded last year as Stadium, and I only figured it out just now via a Google search. I’m guessing you didn’t know about it, either.

Still, there’s no reason for CBS not to try this. In 2014, the network launched CBSN, a similar concept for 24/7 news coverage, and it says it is pleased with those results. That makes sense: It’s a relatively cheap way to create new advertising inventory that doesn’t compete with any of its existing revenue streams.

And if you’re CBS or any of the other giant TV programmers, you want to keep those existing revenue streams intact as long as you can.

* NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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