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OD’d on SVOD? Paramount Plus Bets on Live Linear Channels

Paramount Plus Live Channels
(Image credit: Paramount Plus)

It’s not quite Man Bites Dog, the quintessential definition of a big news story, but Paramount Plus’ move to create 18 linear channels for its on-demand subscription service merits notice as the streaming sector continues to evolve. 

With the move, Paramount Plus commandeers old-school approaches to inexpensively expand its next-gen SVOD service, providing yet another way to leverage its big franchises and deep well of old shows while the mid-sized media company tries to keep up with giant competitors.  

Themed live and linear programming has been a crucial part of corporate cousin Pluto for quite a while, and underpins all of ViacomCBS’ many legacy broadband and cable networks. Still, it’s striking to see the streaming “Mountain of Entertainment” partially shift its programming strategy to something right out of the parent company’s 1990s cable heyday. 

Live Channels, as it’s being called, launched Thursday, featuring all-day linear streams of some of ViacomCBS’ most successful franchises, including Star Trek (of course), Survivor, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Paw Patrol. 

Other linear channels are themed around comedy, adult animation, reality competitions, children’s programming, vintage TV “classics,” and what I like to call the Dostoevsky beat, crime and punishment. Coming soon are channels built on RuPaul’s Drag Race and movies. 

Add in the existing live sports and local news (available only for the ad-free top subscription tier), and maybe Paramount Plus should just rename itself Pay-TV Plus. 

But the throwback approach does two important things: 1) taps into decades-old low-intensity viewing habits; and 2) inexpensively provides quick, no-brainer 24-hour access to the Mountain’s deep library of old shows in a usefully themed way.

“Even in the era of on-demand, there is clearly a strong consumer appetite for reimagined linear channels that provide effortless, lean-back entertainment,” said Tom Ryan, ViacomCBS’ streaming chief in announcing the new channels. “Inspired and informed by the winning model Pluto TV pioneered and popularized, these highly curated channels underscore the power of our unified streaming organization and serve as a product differentiator in the SVOD space, by offering subscribers yet another way to experience and discover programming on Paramount Plus.”

The live, linear channels make the Mountain look bigger, at a time when ViacomCBS still isn’t pumping out original programming at a competitive rate. It taps into all the company’s library, as far back as 1950s stalwart I Love Lucy for the comedy channel, and fills the needs of a subset of consumers who aren’t watching that closely.

Netflix fills this need in a different way with its “play something” button, which serves up a show you might want to watch when you just want something playing on screen. 

Eventually, the new channels will become yet another place to sell ads, at least for subscribers to the ad-supported tier of Paramount Plus. That will be increasingly lucrative as brands further migrate their money to connected-TV ads. 

I expect other streamers will copy this approach soon enough, as they try to keep up with the billions that Netflix, Amazon, and Apple are spending on originals by better leveraging their deep libraries. That will be important as some other expansion tactics look less viable. 

For one thing, companies probably won’t be able to buy their way to scale. PwC’s Media and Telecommunications Deals 2022 Outlook counts more than 800 mergers & acquisitions over the past 12 months, up 27% from 2020. Big deals such as the WarnerMedia/Discovery tie-up and the Amazon purchase of MGM dominated the year’s totals, but hundreds of smaller deals filled out the list.

Though that deal velocity may continue in 2022, it’s becoming less likely, the report suggests. Growing economic headwinds and the Biden Administration’s increasingly assertive antitrust hawks both may make it more difficult for  big companies to acquire, well, much of anything. Hollywood and tech giants shouldn’t count on buying their way to scale anytime soon. 

So tactics like Paramount’ Plus’ FAST service In SVOD clothing could become the look of the year in 2022, as all the services adapt to new consumer expectations. It likely won’t bring in many new subscribers, but in a year that will feature bottomless churn, keeping the ones you have satisfied and subscribing may be enough.

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.