Yellowstone is, by far, the Paramount Network‘s biggest hit. It’s also one of the biggest hits on cable, period. The season 3 cliffhanger finale drew the biggest audience of any scripted TV show on cable in 2020, with 7.6 million viewers watching it. The season 4 premiere in November on the Paramount Network nearly doubled that, with 14.7 million viewers.
The Paramount Plus streaming service would seem like the natural place to turn for anyone hoping to stream the show. But, counterintuitively, the one show most associated with the Paramount name is nowhere to be found on Paramount Plus.
If you want to watch Yellowstone’s latest season — season 4 — on a streaming service, you can finally watch it on rival service Peacock as of Monday. If you want to binge Yellowstone’s back catalog, you can either watch it on Peacock, which has an exclusive deal as the only subscription streaming service with Yellowstone, or you can try to unlock the Paramount Network app — but not Paramount Plus.
And in a surprise twist, the first three seasons streamed over the weekend — entirely free, with ads — on Pluto TV. But they essentially played like an old-school TV marathon, where you can’t pause, rewind, skip or otherwise choose which episode you’re watching.
As confusing as that is, it’s somewhat by design. Yellowstone isn’t the only high-profile Paramount title missing from Paramount Plus streaming service: 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 Paramount and so is the revenue generated by having a hit show on a traditional cable network like Paramount Network. Paramount 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 actually can stream Yellowstone
The main distinction to know is that Paramount Plus is different from Paramount Network, which is where Yellowstone’s fourth season (and all its seasons) were first released. While Paramount Plus is a subscription streaming service, Paramount Network is a traditional cable channel available to people who pay for it through a live-TV provider.
The second distinction to know is that Peacock is the only subscription streaming service with Yellowstone, period.
On Paramount Plus, you can’t stream Yellowstone — old episodes or new ones — at all.
If you want to stream any episodes from the latest season, the only place (for now) is on Paramount Network’s channel, website or app. And this fourth 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.
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.
Paramount Network’s shows and movies, including every Yellowstone 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.)
Starting Monday, the fourth season of Yellowstone has been added to Peacock’s library. The whole season is paywalled. To watch it on Peacock, you must be on one of its paid subscription tiers that normally cost $5 or $10 a month.
If you want to binge the first three seasons, then you can turn to Peacock for that too. Again, you need to have a paid subscription to watch them.
Pluto TV (but you already missed it…)
Pluto TV is a different kind of streaming service from those others. It’s free for anyone to watch with advertising without any registration required. And while it has a library of shows and movies you can watch on demand, the foundation of Pluto TV is pseudo-live “channels” that play programming in one unstoppable stream, just as if you turned on traditional TV and started flipping around different networks.
Pluto TV essentially ran a Yellowstone marathon last weekend of the show’s first three seasons. Pluto’s More TV Drama channel streamed Yellowstone’s first season Friday, its second season Saturday and its third Sunday. But if you caught it on Pluto, you had no control over what you were watching: You couldn’t pause, rewind, skip or otherwise pick which episode you wanted to on demand.
Pluto TV, which is also owned by Paramount, said that Yellowstone won’t be part of its on-demand library. If you missed the marathon this weekend, Pluto said the show will be streaming again later this year — but didn’t specify when.
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. Paramount has ordered a whole stable of shows either spun off of Yellowstone or produced by Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan.
Why Yellowstone streams on Peacock and not 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 snagged them back repeatedly, 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. Last year, Paramount made $5.6 billion in revenue from licensing, nearly a quarter of the company’s total. 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 Paramount 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 last year, 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. In February, Bakish said it was “unfortunate” to strike a Yellowstone licensing deal with Peacock in the midst of closing a major merger.
However, beyond the money Paramount 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 221 million members worldwide, versus Paramount Plus’ 33 million. Interest in Avatar: The Last Airbender surged in 2020 when the show hit Netflix, certainly helping motivate ViacomCBS’ 2021 decision to launch an entire new studio dedicated to fresh Avatar-related programming.
Unfortunately, Paramount isn’t gaining reach for Yellowstone by having it on Peacock. Peacock is even smaller than Paramount Plus: It had 24.5 month active accounts at the end of 2021, with only about 16 million of those on a paid tier that unlocks Yellowstone.
Most recently, Paramount has started reuniting some of its major franchises with its own streaming service. South Park is slowly untangling from HBO Max to make its way Paramount Plus, the company said in February. In 2024, new South Park episodes will have their streaming premieres on Paramount Plus rather than on HBO Max. Then in 2025, Paramount Plus will get the full back-catalog of South Park in the US.
But so far, Paramount has been silent about clawing back the rights to Yellowstone.
That means that for new fans of any of the Yellowstone prequels on Paramount Plus, as they watch the chronicles of the Dutton family’s arrival in Montana and their evolution into ranching titans, Paramount Plus viewers need to go elsewhere to figure out who the Duttons even are.