Viacom is getting ready to raise the curtain on the Paramount Network, unveiling new scripted programming for the channel, which will replace Spike in January.
The Paramount Network is being described as a premium entertainment network, aiming to compete with Netflix and HBO, as opposed to a general entertainment network like TNT or USA.
Viacom has designated the Paramount Network as one of its six flagship channels, which will receive a bigger share of the struggling company's resources as part of new CEO Bob Bakish's turnaround strategy.
"I think this is a big opportunity here," Kevin Kay, president of Paramount Network, TV Land and CMT, told B&C. "It's a big transition from Spike to Paramount, but I think it's the right one and the Paramount brand is so iconic and spectacular."
Kay plans to launch the network with a live version of its hit Lip Sync Battle set on the Paramount lot, with four new scripted series making their debut on the channel in the first three months.
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The first batch of scripted shows for the Paramount Network, slated to air in the first quarter of 2018, feature big stars and big stories.
American Woman stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and tells the story of an unconventional mother raising her two daughters after leaving her husband, highlighting the second wave feminism of the 1970s. The show is based on the experiences of co-executive producer Kyle Richards. The show will debut in January.
Heathers is based on the 1988 film and is an hour-long black-comedy anthology. It stars Grace Victoria Cox, James Scully, Melanie Field, Brendan Scannell and Jasmine Mathews. Original Heathers cast member Shannen Doherty will guest star. The series will debut in February.
Waco is a six-part event series telling the story of the FBI and ATF siege of David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound 25 years ago. It stars Michael Shannon as the lead FBI negotiator and Taylor Kitsch as Koresh. The program will launch in either late February or early March.
I Am Martin Luther King Jr., a new installment in the network's I Am series. The two-hour documentary will air January, near Rev. King's birthday and during Black History Month.
None of the new shows are produced by Paramount, and Heathers and American Woman were originally being developed for TV Land, whose head of development, Keith Cox, is now also the head of development for the Paramount Network under Kay.
"Keith showed them to me and we just had that moment. These are both such high quality shows and such premium product that we're going to take them form TV Land," Kay said. "TV Land is in great shape now with Younger, Teachers and they're launching Nobodies. They have a lot of good programming but those two felt like we should move them over to Paramount Network."
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The first show from Paramount TV that could land on the Paramount Network is First Wives Club, based on the studio's 1996 film. It was also originally being developed for TV Land.
The Paramount Network has renewed Lip Sync Battle for season 4. Lip Sync Battle is hosted by LL Cool J and Chrissy Teigen. It is executive produced by Casey Patterson of Casey Patterson Entertainment, Jay Peterson of Matador Content, John Krasinski, Stephen Merchant and 8 Million Plus Productions.
Kay says he's hoping that the live edition of Lip Sync Battle will feature the stars from Paramount's new shows as contestants, to get the network off to a strong start.
A slogan for the network is still being worked on. "I think the truth of it is that it's about stories worth telling," Kay said. "And it's about premium." Kay also wants the network to be part of the pop culture conversation, which might mean staying away from period pieces in order to stay in touch with the zeitgeist.
Kay says he feels the idea of a general entertainment network is a bit old fashioned in the current TV environment.
"When I think about general entertainment networks is it feels a little old and dusty to me. It feels a little old fashioned to say you're a general entertainment network. And I'm not quite sure what the means in a world where HBO and Netflix and Amazon exist and they are doing the kind of Game of Thrones and Homeland," he said. "You're now putting yourself in a position that you need to compete with them more than you need to compete with the USAs and the TNTs of the world. And those networks, who do a great job, are also trying to raise the bar and compete with the SVOD providers and the pay TV providers."
Kay says he want to compete on the premium level, compete for top talent and high-quality viewers.
"I don't think you can go backwards. Part of what Viacom's thinking was about taking the Paramount name and investing in a domestic Paramount network is we're going to support it, we're going to put great scripted programming and premium non-scripted programming all in one place so you can build an audience," he said.
Spike didn't have the resources to do that. "We're going to launch The Mist at the end of June. Now The Mist is a great show, but if we didn't become the Paramount network, The Mist would not be available for a second season for a year from now. We would have to wait a year and come back having to market it all over again to get the people to come back," Kay said.
"The Paramount Network gives us the opportunity to be in the scripted business year round and cultivate a scripted audience and market them while we're doing scripted, so I think there's big advantage for us there that we didn't have before," he said.
It will also be easier to convince talent to work with the Paramount Network when they see the commitment and the investment behind the brand change, particularly in scripted. Non-scripted might be a bigger challenge, Kay says, just because in that genre, it feels like everything's been done.
Being a premium network also means cutting commercial loads in order to provide viewers with a premium viewer experience.
"That's an important part of the strategy," Kay said. "We're never going to be commercial free because we are in the commercial TV business, but yes, we are trying to keep the loads lower. We'll make an effort to wherever we can work with our clients to integrate them into shows."
The network is starting a road show to lay out its plans for the studios next week. Late in April, the network will be part of Viacom dinners with the top executives at major media buying agencies designed to explain the company's strategy heading into the upfront market.
Viewers and advertisers will get a first look at on-air Paramount branding when the new network presents Spike's special One Night Only with Alec Baldwin on July 9. Other Paramount branded specials might also air.
Like many cable networks in an era of cord cutting, Spike lost about 1 million subscribers in 2016 from the year before.
Net ad revenue was just about flat in 2016 at $343.8 million, according to SNL Kagan, which expects the network's ad revenue to climb 8% to $372.2 million in 2017, before the rebranding. The network is very profitable, generating $406.5 million in cash flow in 2016, with a cash flow margin of 46.7%.
Viacom just named a new head for the troubled Paramount studio business, former Fox Films exec Jim Gianopulos.
Viacom CEO Bakish expects the flagship networks to create big ideas that would make good movies. That hasn't happened yet for Paramount, but Kay expects to find ways to work with the studio.
"We will eventually have a movie idea. But it's also incumbent on us as the Paramount TV Network to support the features that that Paramount movie studio is releasing," he said. "We're thinking about are there prequels or sequels to some of the franchise, that are going to be released over the next year to two to three because I feel we can be really helpful if we develop right."
"I think that's the opportunity. I think it goes both ways. And yes, if we have developed a series that can become a movie that's great."
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