Can ViacomCBS Transform The Star Trek Channel Into South Park Central?

(Image credit: ViacomCBS)

Time was, say more than a week ago, when you thought about Paramount Plus—presuming you actually thought about Paramount Plus —you thought of the streaming service’s approximately 437 Star Trek series and movies. 

Star Trek: Picard, featuring Patrick Stewart, is actually quite entertaining, even for us non-specialists in all things Federation. But if you’re not jazzed about watching the world’s first octogenarian action hero (hope for Liam Neeson’s late, late, late career!), there’s plenty more where it came from, all on Paramount Plus, which gives its nine Star Trek episodic series their own category. 

Also read: ‘South Park’ Movies Coming to Paramount Plus Under New $900 Million Deal

But of a sudden, Paramount Plus has a chance to be more than just Star Trek, thanks to a mammoth deal announced this week. It’s about time. 

Paramount Plus was leaning toward also-ran status, just months after it had finally revamped an underfed predecessor that had been around most of a decade. Now, it looks like that “mountain of entertainment” promised endlessly in the site’s ads might actually include some interesting originals. 

True, if you’re a left-leaning adult female of a certain age, you might already love Paramount Plus’ The Good Fight. The increasingly wacky but still entertaining spinoff of one of CBS’ last buzz-generating shows, The Good Fight that has been around for five seasons.

But the list of other Must Watch programming on Paramount Plus is awkwardly brief. It’s true the company has gotten a tiny bit of critical attention with Evil, where a psychologist, a carpenter and a priest walk into a bar and … actually, that’s not a setup for a joke, but it sure could be. It’s also the setup for what has been a critically well received show, created by Robert and Michelle King, producers of The Good Wife and The Good Fight. =

Evil bears the logo “Paramount Plus Original,” and it certainly counts as that, exploring its namesake in a maybe-supernatural and wholly philosophical take on CBS’ bread and butter programming, crime and punishment. 

In terms of originality, one can’t say much about most originals on the service, which lineup includes a reboot (iCarly), a reunion (The Real World Homecoming New York), and spinoffs of SpongeBob SquarePants and RuPaul’s Drag Race. At least there’s a warm and cuddly show about unhappy postwar housewives called Why Women Kill, a feature-length Mark Wahlberg thriller, Infinite, and later this month, a feature-length Paw Patrol.

But mostly the service has functioned as something like Hulu for all of ViacomCBS’ legacy outlets, a place to catch up on what you missed while watching old-school “TV.”

That’s been modestly successful for Paramount Plus. Analytics consultant Antenna Inc. says Paramount Plus was fifth—ahead of Starz, Showtime, Discovery Plus, Peacock and Apple TV Plus—in its share of subscriptions among the top 10 general-interest services.

Antenna chart

(Image credit: Antenna)

But it’s also worth noting that Paramount Plus’ current share, 8% of a fast-growing sector, is not much bigger than the share that predecessor CBS All Access claimed two years ago, when there were just six streaming majors. 

Which is why the programming announcement made during ViacomCBS’ earnings call on Thursday was so much bigger than just its gigantic price tag, though that was big too, a $900 million deal with Trey Parker and Matt Stone. 

The announcement came just in time to extend Parker and Stone’s durable animated comedy South Park for five more years, ahead of its 25th season, a record for animated longevity outstripped only by The Simpsons.

The deal provides far more than just half-hour show after half-hour show about four potty-mouthed pre-pubescents skewering American pop culture. 

It includes 14 movies, starting with a two-parter, in a production slate plan rivaled perhaps only by Marvel. All 14 will debut exclusively on Paramount Plus, significantly enhancing what has been an anemic slate.  

The deal also calls for Parker and Stone to somehow find time to develop non-South Park programming. All this can’t come soon enough. The show’s production has been on hold for a year, and all the back episodes are still sitting on HBO Max for now.

The puckish pair issued a statement saying they were “really happy (ViacomCBS) made a commitment to us for the next 75 years,” and they were looking forward to continue experimenting with new formats, like the hour-long specials they’ve made during the pandemic so far. 

ViacomCBS is hardly the first company to splash the cash for streaming talent. Netflix was there first, wooing Disney stalwart Shonda Rhimes with $100 million to her Thursday night ABC programming block. That deal is so old, Rhimes just re-upped after Bridgerton proved one of the past year’s biggest hits. Now Rhimes will be making movies, merchandise, and even virtual-reality experiences as part of Big Red’s new gaming initiative.

It was vital for ViacomCBS to lock up, for “75 years” even, one of the most talented producer teams in their stable. More importantly, it was vital to get Stone and Parker thinking beyond the thing they’ve done for a quarter century on an aging distribution platform. In that, transition to the future, they should just look at Rhimes’ expanding remit at Netflix to see wha might be possible. This could get interesting. 

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.