Yellowstone (Courtesy of Paramount Network)
Paramount Network is shifting strategies — and changing names.
Variety has learned that the ViacomCBS-owned cabler is planning to move out of long form series television and instead focus its efforts on made-for-TV movies featuring big name stars. To that end, the network will be rebranded as the Paramount Movie Network. The rebrand will take place globally within the next year.
The current plan is to program 52 original movies per year on the network, or one movie per week. Each movie will have a budget in the low-to-mid-seven-figure range. Once per quarter, the network expects to program a miniseries or scripted series on the scale of its hit drama “Yellowstone,” potentially spinning off characters from those projects into their own films or sequels in the future.
“We’re doubling down on scripted but diversifying with made for TV movies, mini-series and blockbuster series with movie stars like ‘Yellowstone’” says Chris McCarthy, president of entertainment and youth brands for ViacomCBS domestic media networks, in an interview with Variety. “Made-for-TV movies provide all the creative upside and ability to work with great talent, without the full time commitment of a series or feature. Plus, we’re maximizing our investment because we can build a valuable library to use across our streaming, cable and global footprints.” McCarthy, the MTV and VH1 chief who was promoted late last year to oversee the vast majority of ViacomCBS’ cable brands, recently rolled out a like-minded overhaul of Comedy Central — pivoting from scripted live-action half hours and toward adult animation, event programs and specials with high-profile talent such as John Mulaney and original movies.
As part of the programming shift, Paramount Movie Network will move out of unscripted programming. The unscripted shows “Ink Master, “Wife Swap,” and “Battle of the Fittest Couples” will all be canceled. “Cops” had previously been canceled at Paramount Network back in June. Unscripted hits like “Bar Rescue” and “Lip Sync Battle” will live on, but will be moved elsewhere within the ViacomCBS cable portfolio. The network’s scripted series “Yellowstone” will continue as part of the new strategy, having been renewed for a fourth season in February. However, the plan is to present the show as a cinematic experience, possibly programming two episodes in a single night with limited commercial interruptions.
ViacomCBS had previously indicated it planned to program around 100 original movies a year across its portfolio. With 52 on Paramount Network, 20-30 will go to MTV while another 20-30 will go to Comedy Central. Development of the movies will be overseen by Megan Hooper White, who was named executive vice president and head of original movies and limited series for ViacomCBS’ entertainment and youth group back in May. Keith Cox continues to serve as president of entertainment and youth studios. Both White and Cox report to Nina L. Diaz, who heads programming for the entertainment and youth group under McCarthy.
The network’s bigger productions will be produced by Paramount Pictures, while a large portion will be hail from MTV Studios. ViacomCBS will also work with international partners like Network 10, Channel 5, and Telefe on certain films.
McCarthy says the value of films like those he is planning to program is that “they are timeless and they work everywhere.” The shift will also allow the brand to make use of facilities owned by ViacomCBS both domestically and abroad, no small feat in the current COVID environment.
“We have found projects around the world that make a lot of sense that we can tap into, particularly in the made-for-TV movie model,” he says. “It enables us to access our global built-in infrastructure and expertise, particularly our facilities in Latin America.”
The films are also valuable because they are highly repeatable on different platforms, McCarthy says. That is opposed to a long-form narrative series, which requires viewers to have seen all the preceding episodes in order to fully grasp the story and thus commit to watching more in the future.
According to multiple sources, Paramount Network first began paring down its scripted TV development plans at the beginning of the year. In the wake of the Viacom-CBS merger, executives at the rejoined companies began looking for ways to cut costs. At Paramount Network, that included axing multiple projects both in development and those already ordered to series. Among those cut was a series adaptation of the film “Sexy Beast.” The show was given a 10-episode straight-to-series order at the cabler last year. It was announced in July that MTV Studios and creator Darren Starr’ “Emily in Paris,” which was first ordered by Paramount Network in September 2018, would debut its first season on Netflix.
The moves come as McCarthy says he and his group are focusing on content that they own which is produced by their in house studios.
“We are creative builders, not buyers and always have been,” he says. “As our group’s portfolio has expanded, if we don’t own something, we’re transitioning out of it because it doesn’t provide long-term value for the company.”
There are currently few scripted series still on the Paramount Network roster beyond “Yellowstone” as McCarthy’s group focuses on ViacomCBS-owned content. Earlier this year, the network aired the Afghanistan war dramedy “68 Whiskey,” which was recently canceled after one season. That show was produced by CBS Television Studios and Imagine Entertainment. Still to be determined is the fate of Michael Chiklis-led drama “Coyote” from Sony Pictures Television.
Other scripted shows currently set up at Paramount Network include “Mayor of Kingstown” from “Yellowstone’s” Taylor Sheridan, and “Paradise Lost” starring Josh Hartnett, the last of which is currently set to air on both Paramount Network and Spectrum. “Mayor of Kingstown” will likely stay on Paramount Network, where it would make a natural pairing with “Yellowstone.” It was also recently announced that Spectrum and Paramount Network are partnering on a limited series in which Jessica Chastain will star as country music legend Tammy Wynette. The show will air on Spectrum, Paramount Network, and the streaming service Paramount Plus.
“Yellowstone” has proven to be a significant scripted success story for Paramount Network. The show regularly draws an audience of 5-6 million viewers in the Nielsen Live+7 ratings, though it also over-indexes with viewers over 50. The show’s Season 3 finale drew a whopping 7.6 million viewers in Live+3, marking not only the most-watched episode of the show to date but also the most-watched telecast in network history. Including simulcasts and encores, the Season 3 finale drew 10.7 million viewers — indicative of the strategy put in place by McCarthy of playing and promoting programs across multiple brands.
Prior to the reorganization that saw McCarthy gain oversight of Paramount Network in 2019, the brand found little success in its push into scripted programming. Limited series “Waco,” about the standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians was nominated for three Emmy Awards in 2018. But original comedy “American Woman” was canceled after one season. The comedy “Nobodies,” which aired its first season on TV Land, aired its second season on Paramount Network before being canceled.
The series reboot of the dark high school comedy film “Heathers” was set to air on Paramount Network in early 2018, but it was pushed back multiple times in the wake of several mass shootings in the U.S. The entire first season was finally aired over the course of one week in October 2018 with no second season planned.
When rolling out his plan for the future of what was then Viacom in early 2017, months after being named CEO, current ViacomCBS president and CEO Bob Bakish, announced that Spike would be be rebranded Paramount Network and identified it as one of Viacom’s core cable channels. He envisioned it as the destination for premium scripted content within the Viacom cable universe, while other brands like MTV and CMT ceased producing scripted originals around that same time. And as Variety exclusively reported in March, Pop TV is the latest network under the ViacomCBS umbrella to largely end its scripted programming.
McCarthy previously told Variety that ViacomCBS brands under his purview have become more of a launch pad for content that can now live in various amounts of platforms.
“We’ve always been about new, now and next,” McCarthy said in June. He went on to stress that the real power is how the company plans to window their content in years to come.
Part of that windowing will be Paramount Plus, the ViacomCBS streaming service. CBS All Access will be rebranded as Paramount Plus in 2021, and will feature a wide range of IP from within the ViacomCBS portfolio on a global scale.
Variety's Joe Otterson contributed to this post.