CBS All Access Gets Supersized

Awkwafina in Nora From Queens. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Comedy Central

Among the many, many ways the coronavirus pandemic is changing the TV landscape is that some of 2020’s most eagerly anticipated series will very likely end up not airing new episodes this year. Season three of HBO’s Succession, for example, is almost certainly now delayed until 2021. And late last month, Younger star Debi Mazar revealed that the TV Land show actually hadn’t started filming its next batch of episodes when the virus halted production around the world. That means there won’t be the usual batch of summer episodes to look forward to this year, and it’s highly likely (though not yet impossible) that there’ll be any new episodes at all this year.

Longer term, of course, the big question hanging over the industry is whether COVID-19 will result in long-lasting changes to how TV gets made and where we watch it. What seems most likely is that the disruption speeds up trends already in progress, like cord-cutting and the evolution of linear TV. This week’s Buffering looks at how scripted originals are becoming increasingly rare on cable as big conglomerates adapt to the age of streaming. We’ve also got fresh news from ViacomCBS’s earnings call and a few quick hits on some new lockdown viewing numbers. —Joe Adalian

Big Changes for CBS All Access

This morning, ViacomCBS reported its first-quarter earnings. As I wrote last week, the big question ahead of the call was whether the company would announce more details about its streaming plans. And it did — sort of. CEO Bob Bakish, who in February said the company would use CBS All Access as the focus of its new direct-to-consumer strategy, offered a few more nuggets of intel about his strategy:

 The timetable for the expansion of what is now known as CBS All Access has been sped up. “We are accelerating our plans for an expanded subscription service, building off our CBS All Access platform – with major changes coming this summer,” Bakish told investors.

• The CBS All Access name is almost certainly going to change. Bakish said the company is working “towards the rebrand and relaunch of a transformed product,” the clearest signal yet ViacomCBS is planning more than just adding new programming to the platform. However, while All Access will see a ton of new content added by the summer, a name change and official relaunch could take a few months longer. ViacomCBS will likely want time to test new names and hammer out a marketing strategy for the improved service.

• The infusion of content from the old Viacom into All Access has already started. Today, the service added 100 titles from the Paramount Pictures film library (including The Godfather trilogy), and while many of these movies can be streamed elsewhere, the movie automatically improves one of the most glaring weaknesses in the All Access product: its underwhelming offering of feature films. Expect all the major ViacomCBS TV brands (MTV, Comedy Central, etc.) to add shows to All Access very soon.

• And for the first time, Bakish made it clear that the new All Access will add original content produced by its new ViacomCBS siblings rather than just reruns. “We will build on this incredible base of content — a catalog multiple times larger than many of the new SVOD entrants — by expanding our originals slate across the portfolio,” Bakish explained. “This will bring first window content from each of our brands to this platform. Our biggest franchises will be key to this strategy, as will our broad programming strength across genres — from animation to science fiction, comedy, reality, kids, crime procedurals, and more.”

I, for one, am excited for CSI: Jersey Shore.

Cable TV’s Scripted Quandary

Lily Collins in Emily in Paris. Photo: Paramount Network

Bakish didn’t answer every lingering question about the company’s new streaming plans. There was no hint about whether or not ViacomCBS plans to change the pricing structure of any of its subscription offerings. And there also wasn’t much talk about the big changes happening at the company’s linear networks. (Though there’s good news for YouTube TV subscribers: More than a dozen ViacomCBS channels are coming to the service this summer.)

Last week top programming executives at two ViacomCBS cablers — Comedy Central and Smithsonian Network — exited in conjunction with a broader wave of layoffs at the company. An internal memo from division boss Chris McCarthy characterized those staff changes as “the final step” of the plan to “merge our … branded groups into one unified creative organization,” one which will “take advantage of our full scale and shared expertise.” Translation: The ratings and health of individual cable networks will no longer drive programming decisions. Instead, the focus will be on managing the company’s overall portfolio of networks and production studios.

Rather than having individual networks operate in separate bubbles, battling for talent and ratings, the goal now is to use the collective size of ViacomCBS to compete, and to think of iconic networks such as MTV and Comedy Central as “brands” rather than simply channels. As I broke yesterday, this shift is one reason Younger creator Darren Star’s new Paramount Network dramedy Emily in Paris may be jetting to Netflix. The ViacomCBS cabler is in discussions with the global streamer about acquiring the rights to Star’s series, which has already completed filming its first season.

The possible move of Emily is partially a response to the industry-wide trend of dramatically decreased ratings for scripted shows on both broadcast and cable networks. While the company isn’t talking, it seems likely ViacomCBS brass decided the show’s best chance for long-term success was not on Paramount Network, but on a streaming platform. Though Emily has a great pedigree behind it, it’s not loaded with big names and its concept isn’t four-quadrant blockbuster: a young woman from the Midwest (Lily Collins) ends up working for a French marketing firm; culture clash ensues. Launching the show on Paramount Network would require millions more in marketing and likely a couple years of patience for it to build an audience. Even if Emily clicked with audiences, there would be no guarantee of financial success for ViacomCBS, which owns the show under its MTV Studios banner.

By contrast, a Netflix sale is pretty much risk-free for ViacomCBS. When the streamer buys shows from other companies, it generally covers the full cost of production, plus enough to ensure a small profit for the producer. Moving Emily to Netflix — if such a deal closes — means ViacomCBS is guaranteed to make money, something far less certain if it were to air as planned on a cable network. It’s a scenario that has already played out several times over the last year or two:

• A series reboot of the movie First Wives Club was announced as a Paramount Network original back in 2018, but ultimately ended up as one of the signature series for ViacomCBS streaming platform BET Plus (where it’s since been renewed for a second season).

• Disney-owned FX’s best originals are now being developed for Hulu (via the FX on Hulu vertical), while Disney just this week took National Geographic Channel’s big fall drama The Right Stuff and turned it into a Disney+ original.

• NBCUniversal last year shifted several projects planned for its cable channels (such as USA Network’s Brave New World adaptation and some pilots at Bravo and E!) over to its new Peacock platform, while the exec team at WarnerMedia-owned Turner now basically doubles as the creative engine for HBO Max.

The You case study: The biggest success story of a show jumping from cable to streaming of late has been Lifetime’s You. It did okay-but-not-great ratings for the cabler, but the company decided it couldn’t make a second season of the show work. Instead, it sold season one’s episodes to Netflix, which also agreed to make a season two. Season one debuted on Netflix weeks after wrapping on Lifetime and instantly became a buzzy success. The Netflix-exclusive second season also did well.

Scripted TV’s next stage: The shift of so many scripted originals to streaming is happening in part because it’s proven exceedingly hard for new cable comedies and dramas to get big ratings. It’s not impossible: Paramount’s Yellowstone, whose third season is set to debut next month, is a substantial Nielsen hit (albeit very expensive to produce), while last winter’s Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens gave Comedy Central its most-watched comedy premiere in three years. Big basic cable networks such as AMC, FX, and USA, plus specialized channels such as OWN and Hallmark Channel, have also found success with new scripted shows lately — but not at the same volume as even a few years ago.

The key going forward for conglomerates with big cable portfolios won’t be a complete retreat from scripted, but rather rethinking what kinds of comedies and dramas to make, and figuring out ways to make them easily accessible to audiences across platforms. We’ll see more cases of shows living on multiple networks, the way BBC America’s Killing Eve airs simultaneously on the bigger AMC. But we’ll also see basic cable’s share of overall scripted production continue to decline as companies focus on either their own streaming platforms or on shows that can be sold to outside streamers.

We might also see more one-off projects: I hear ViacomCBS is close to adding a new exec whose job will focus on making original movies that can play across various brands and platforms.

And, finally, look for more examples of companies using intellectual property they own or existing showrunner deals to make content for outside platforms. NBCUniversal has a big overall deal with Mindy Kaling, but her latest series Never Have I Ever is a hit for Netflix, not USA Network or Bravo. And over at ViacomCBS, an IP-centric strategy has resulted in a deal to reboot The Real World for Facebook Watch and the upcoming Quibi reunion of Reno 911!

Forget it, Jake, it’s Streamingtown: While scripted fare isn’t completely disappearing from basic cable, there will almost surely be less of it in the next few years, and what does get produced will likely be more limited in scope (in order to match diminished linear ratings). The big media companies know their future is in streaming, not cable. What ViacomCBS is doing will be painful in the short term, with lots of very talented folks losing work. And it’s an open question whether getting rid of execs who specialize in certain kinds of programming — particularly comedy — will end up hurting the brands ViacomCBS cherishes so much. But overall? Having a half-dozen cable (or even streaming) kingdoms doing their own thing simply doesn’t make sense anymore.

Inessential Wrestling?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and WWE

Some other quick hits from around the TV universe….

• What are we watching more of during the great coronavirus lockdown? A Comcast Xfinity rep tells me that TLC’s 90-Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days was the No. 2 most-watched title on the company’s video-on-demand platform between March 9 and April 26. It ranks just behind Showtime’s Homeland but ahead of HBO’s Westworld. CNET has a good wrap-up of some other recent VOD trends, from the obvious (we’re watching more news) to the slightly more surprising: We’re doing more late-night viewing — maybe because we can’t sleep after watching the news?

 The WWE’s controversial decision to keep producing new shows during the coronavirus lockdowns isn’t paying off with viewersRaw just had its smallest audience ever, and Fox’s Smackdown is taking a Nielsen hit, too. I’m secretly hoping viewers are intentionally punishing WWE for its profit-centric thinking.

 Disney+ continues to grow. It’s now up to 54 million global subscribers. Unfortunately for Disney, it’s about the only real bright spot for the company right now.

• Did you know you can pay $10 per month to stream performances from Barry Manilow’s personal archives? Now you do.

Looking to Stream Something Different?

After a week off, our series on services you might not have heard of continues with three more ways to expand your personal streaming portfolio.

Kweli TV
An indie streamer with content from black creators, both in America and across the African diaspora. Movies from Nigeria (Flower Girl) live next to American docs such as Changing Face of Harlem. Programming categories range from news and docs to comedies and anime, plus plenty of international films.
Cost: $6 per month/$50 per year

Tennis Channel Plus
The streaming version to the cable channel, it serves up (get it? serves up) more than 4,500 live matches every year. In addition to the linear feed of the Tennis Channel, it offers more comprehensive coverage of many tournaments plus an extensive on-demand library.
Cost: $110 per year

Film Movement Plus
The 18-year-old distributor, which started out in 2002 with a monthly DVD club, now has a streaming service offering more than 300 indie titles and dozens of short films. The titles are often award nominees (and winners), festival faves, and foreign-language hits. In addition to on-demand movies, the service also allows you to buy or rent more recent releases.
Cost: $6 per month/$60 per year

Parting Shot

“I can think of no better metaphor for this presidency than Donald Trump not wearing a face mask to a face mask factory while the song ‘Live and Let Die’ blares in the background.”

— Jimmy Kimmel, reflecting on Trump’s odd choice of music for his first trip outside of Washington in months.

CBS All Access Gets Supersized