When ET Live first launched on Halloween of 2018, the free “Entertainment Tonight”-branded streaming network kicked off with 15 hours of live programming a week, in three daily installments of entertainment news a day at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.
But after just a few months, the direct-to-consumer platform — modeled off of CBS’ 24/7 news streamer CBSN and based on one of the most well-known entertainment nightly newsmagazine — would air just 20-40 minutes of live programming each weekday, down from three hours a weekday previously, according to several sources.
Now, scarcely a year after it launched, one of Les Moonves’ last pet projects during his tenure as CBS chief is stumbling, cutting around a quarter of its staff and re-aligning its operations amid an increasingly competitive streaming landscape that requires players both large and small to be at the top of their game.
ET Live engaged in bloodletting Tuesday, after CBS Television Distribution Digital senior vice president and general manager David Katz gathered both the ET Online and ET Live teams in Burbank to tell them that they would be merging.
Ultimately, the majority of the cuts took place at ET Live, Variety has learned; 22 of the combined 90 employees at ET Live and ET Online — or 24% of the staff — were given notice, though two staffers are transitioning into open positions. (On-air hosts Melicia Johnson and Cassie DiLaura have been offered new positions within ET Digital.)
Though “Entertainment Tonight,” ET Online and ET Live all share the same branding, and the former’s content flows through the latter two, the three were until Tuesday separate entities, with the linear broadcast operating out of CBS’ Radford lot in Studio City, and digital content partner ET Online and streamer ET Live residing under the purview of CBS Interactive. The newly combined ET Online and ET Live will now “support and drive the ET brand across all digital platforms,” according to a CBS Television Distribution Digital spokesperson.
Moonves pushed through the creation of ET Live, multiple sources tell Variety, even as some have since questioned the need for the service. The former CBS chief exec first publicized plans for a direct-to-consumer entertainment news streamer in late 2017, touting the relatively small service both at Goldman Sachs’ Communacopia investors conference and at Variety‘s Innovate Summit.
“We’ve talked about next year launching a 24-hour entertainment news service based on our show ‘ET,’” Moonves said onstage at Innovate in November of that year, telegraphing his interest in identifying more hubs from which the company could produce more content.
At that point, CBS’ SVOD and AVOD portfolio was blooming into existence at a quick clip. Subscription streamers CBS All Access and Showtime OTT, which currently boast a healthy 8 million collective paying subscribers, launched in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Free digital streaming news network CBSN debuted in 2014. Sports HQ, a sports-focused AVOD, popped up last year.
But Moonves was ultimately ousted, following a spate of sexual misconduct claims, just seven weeks before the launch of ET Live. Amid further corporate reshuffling in the ensuing months — which included the departure of CBS Television Distribution senior VP of multiplatform and branded content Becky Brooks, a former “ET” co-EP who led the launch of “ET Live” — some say that CBS Interactive’s execs, with their tech-heavy backgrounds, weren’t as familiar with the world of traditional entertainment news broadcasts, to the detriment of ET Live.
“It became apparent that we weren’t getting much feedback from anyone in terms of the kind of content we should be creating or what our goals should be,” one source familiar with ET Live’s operations told Variety, calling its shows’ production values “sub-industry standard” when compared to other streaming productions such as Buzzfeed’s “AM to DM,” which airs on Twitter.
“I couldn’t tell you what [management] wanted.”
Still, ET Live’s average monthly unique viewership has grown at a clip of 20% since its launch, according to a person with knowledge of the streamer’s metrics, which has contributed to ET Online’s audience growth. And the little streamer has occasionally managed to make a mark with its coverage, including that of Nipsey Hussle’s memorial in April.
The ET digital offshoot is but a sliver of the newly merged behemoth formed by the merger of Viacom and CBS, which now encompasses a huge swatch of properties, both linear and digital. But the recent changes at ET’s digital operations raise a question or two about how its new parent conglomeration’s ad-supported streaming strategy will unfold as it scrutinizes its properties, with an oft-stated goal of $500 million in synergies (read: cost-cutting).
As it tries to regain its footing, ET Live is not going away, according to a person familiar with the situation. It and several other CBS Interactive channels just last month were added to Pluto TV, the AVOD acquired by Viacom in 2018 and touted by ViacomCBS chief Bob Bakish as having quickly grown its user base by 50% to 18 million.
But the streaming market’s unforgiving rhythms, dominated by just a few major names elbowing for a finite number of viewers, mean that some smaller players may just have to scale down so that their parent companies can scale up.