The US’s newest general entertainment station, the Paramount Network, launches in January 2018. Jesse Whittock hears how channel president Kevin Kay plans to change cable with premium originals and unscripted hits for a broad audience.
When Bakish left his post as Viacom’s international business head and took control of the company at the turn of the year, he made it clear to shareholders the big missed opportunity had been the approach to its major brands.
Therefore the siloed approached that underpinned Philippe Dauman’s reign was out and an age of cooperation was ushered in. Most resources would now go on six brands: MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount, with the latter gaining a new identity on US soil: the Paramount Network.
Separate to the movie-focused, international Paramount Channel, the new proposition will include hit unscripted shows from the Spike TV channel it replaces, including Lip Sync Battle, and premium original dramas such as Kevin Costner family drama Yellowstone and female-focused TV Land pair Heathers and American Woman.
The rationale is simple, says Kevin Kay, president of Paramount Network (pictured), who also oversees TV Land and CMT. “It goes back to what Viacom is all about: different channels for different audiences,” he explains.
“What we did not have in that package of channels was a general entertainment channel with broad appeal, to both audiences and advertisers.”
Kay, a natural pessimist by his own estimation, says he is reticent to overplay the position of the channel before it launches on January 18, 2018, but admits, “It is starting to come together in a big way”.
“There’s been a lot of preparation and thinking behind the creative since this decision to launch was made back in February,” he adds.
A big part of that is marketing the network. Spike, which Kay has led since 2007 when it was known as TNN, will cease its life as a US channel (though international networks with the branding will remain), and a key perception challenge is attracting women that would reject that channel brand, with its MMA fighting programmes and blokey thrillers.
“The heritage of Spike is still male,” says Kay. “That’s part of the fun and the challenge of what we’re doing; we are trying to get more women to Paramount Network, and American Woman and Heathers will do that.”
Alicia Silverstone- and Mena Suvari-starring sitcom American Woman comes from John Wells Productions and Warner Bros., and is based on the life of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kyle Richard, while Heathers is an adaptation of the dark high school comedy from 1988, with Lakeshore Entertainment attached.
“Then Waco (above) will skew a lot more male,” says Kay of the big budget Weinstein Television limited drama that will launch the channel. The series is based on the 51-day standoff between government agents and The Branch Davidians that ended in a deadly fire, with Taylor Kitsch playing cult leader David Koresh, John Leguizamo playing an ATF agent and Michael Shannon as FBI negotiator Gary Noesner.
While Waco broaches a tough topic, Kay says Paramount Network drama is likely to skew a little lighter than rivals such as FX and the premium pay outlets. “It’s not criticism of FX, as I love what they do, but why would we want to go there and do the same?” he questions. “Yellowstone is an edgier version of Dallas, but it still lives in that place of optimism.”
Kay says there is also the challenge of convincing viewers Paramount Network is not a movie channel, pointing to internal research proving many think just that.
“There has to be a strong message there is original programming along with movies, and we have to reach out to women to let them know there is programming for them,” he adds. “It’s a new day here.”
Lip Sync Battle, which began life on Spike and launches the channel in January, will be another key driver in positioning Paramount Network as a general entertainment proposition, as will sister unscripted shows Ink Master and Bar Rescue. “We need another non-scripted hit behind the three coming over from Spike,” says Kay.
He is on the lookout for another fun, celebrity-driven series, as this goes to the core of the classic Paramount studio brand. “Stars are part of the legacy of Paramount – the original logo had 24 stars to represent the 24 stars on the books at the time,” he says.
In a practical sense, he adds: “The amount of star power Lip Sync Battle generates is huge, and we are going to want to generate conversations in that way, using star talent both in front of and behind the camera.”
Kay has also looked at factual entertainment formats from Viacom-owned UK terrestrial Channel 5 (C5), including the well-received Rich House, Poor House, which he says defies expectations of the title. “What Ben Frow at Channel 5 has done is just brilliant – and how does he come up with those show names?” says Kay.
Also in development is First Wives Club, a show that exemplifies the new world of cooperation within the Viacom group. The series comes through Amy Powell’s Paramount Television division, and was initially a pilot for TV Land.
“There is constantly dialogue between our president of development, Keith Cox, and Amy,” says Kay. “It’s about exploiting IP we own, and then being able to control the international and SVOD rights and share the content on all platforms.”
Those silos truly do seem to be breaking down.
Jill Offman (left), who oversaw the most recent international expansion of Comedy Central, is now in charge of the next chapter for Paramount’s overseas escapades as executive vice president. She is enthused by the plan in the US, and sees it as something that will be replicated internationally.
“I love Bob Bakish’s energy for this channel,” she says. “It’s about ambitiously wanting to make a difference in linear TV. What they’re trying to do in the US, and which is a huge opportunity internationally, is premium-popular.
“It’s premium content for really vast audiences, and that means it is a little more accessible, but with the same cinematographic values that Paramount is known for.”
Ultimately, the plan is to have a pipeline of Paramount Network shows on international feeds, though this won’t be possible for all premium series as securing them in the US has, initially at least, meant being flexible with rights.
Offman says Spain and Italy have been the most successful Paramount Channels to date, and sees opportunity in the UK, Latin America and Eastern European territories such as Poland and Hungary, which have taken to Comedy Central.
With Bakish so keen on group synergies, it is likely Paramount Channel will ultimately become Paramount Network internationally too, though this will be a time-consuming and expensive process should it come to pass.
“We’ve got these 118 channels, and at a certain point we’re going to bring them into alignment with the US, and that raises the question of whether they would have the same name,” says Offman.
“As a Viacom person, I can say the closer they are, the better, so I’m hoping they have the same name. I imagine the channel we will see in 18 months to two years will be much further along the road than we can see now.”
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