UPDATE, July 13: Netflix and ViacomCBS have closed a deal to bring Darren Star’s Emily in Paris to the streaming giant. The dramedy, developed for TV Land before being shifted to Paramount Network, will now land on Netflix this fall. ViacomCBS’s MTV Studios remains the producer of the show.
May 6, 2020: Darren Star’s new Paramount Network dramedy Emily in Paris may be jetting to a new home on Netflix. Vulture hears the ViacomCBS-owned cable network is in discussions with the global streamer about acquiring the rights to Emily, which completed filming of its first season before the coronavirus pandemic shut down production of nearly all TV shows and movies. The potential switch comes as ViacomCBS’s Entertainment and Youth Group — home to a slew of cable brands, including MTV, Comedy Central, and Paramount Network — is undergoing a complete transformation of its approach to developing and programming content for the streaming era.
A rep for ViacomCBS declined to comment on the possibility of Emily moving from Paramount to Netflix or why such talks with Netflix might be happening at all. A Netflix rep also declined to comment. But since the merger of Viacom and CBS last winter, ViacomCBS management has sped up its plans to manage the company’s portfolio of cable networks and production studios as a group rather than making programming decisions based on the ratings and health of individual networks. While those networks used to 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. The shift is a response to the industrywide trend of dramatically decreased ratings for scripted shows on both broadcast and cable networks as audiences have changed how they watch TV.
In terms of Emily, it seems 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 with Star, it’s not loaded with big stars and its concept isn’t a four-quadrant blockbuster: A young woman (Lily Collins) from the Midwest 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. That approach worked well for Star’s other ViacomCBS series Younger, one of cable’s biggest comedies among young-adult audiences. But that series debuted on TV Land five years ago, when the overall cable TV business was much healthier. These days, even if Emily clicked with audiences, there would be no guarantee of financial success for ViacomCBS, which owns the show via 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 with the show, something far less certain if it were to air as planned on a cable network. The company executed a similar play with First Wives Club, another show developed by Paramount around the same time as Emily. The series was also announced as a Paramount original back in 2018, briefly moved to BET, and 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). While that move kept First Wives inside the ViacomCBS family, it was still an admission that streaming offered a better shot at success. The best-case scenario now is that Emily ends up like You, which did okay-but-not-great ratings for Lifetime and then became a massive success when it jumped to Netflix a few months after its linear run.
Other big entertainment conglomerates are following a similar path as ViacomCBS for basic-cable scripted programming. Many of Disney-owned FX’s 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. Similarly, NBCUniversal last year shifted several series planned for its cable channels 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 shift of so many scripted originals to streaming is happening in part because it’s proved exceedingly hard for new cable comedies and dramas to get big ratings. It’s not impossible, of course: Paramount’s Yellowstone, whose third season is set to debut next month, is a substantial Nielsen hit (albeit very expensive to produce). And 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. Meanwhile, unscripted and live shows have generally fared much better in the new linear TV universe: Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has seen its ratings surge over the past year, while reality shows on MTV and VH1 continue to pull big numbers.
As ViacomCBS figures out a new path forward for original scripted production, not all projects already in development will be lucky enough to find cushy new homes like the one Emily might get at Netflix. In March, the company’s Pop TV network, acquired as part of the merger with CBS, bailed on three scripted series — Flack, Florida Girls, and Best Intentions — even though in the case of Flack, new episodes were set to begin airing within a few days. (Those shows came from outside studios and are still looking for new networks.) And longer-term, it’s hardly a given that smaller shows from outside studios — think Pop TV’s One Day at a Time — will have a home on ViacomCBS cable networks going forward.
This new, consolidated approach to programming and production has led to departures of top exec talent at the ViacomCBS Entertainment and Youth Group. Last week, top programming executives at Comedy Central and Smithsonian Network exited in conjunction with a broader wave of layoffs at the company. An internal memo last week from division boss Chris McCarthy characterized those staff changes as part of the aforementioned rethinking of the group’s strategy. McCarthy said the staff changes were “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.”
And yet, in a sign the company isn’t giving up on scripted shows, one industry insider tells Vulture that ViacomCBS is looking at bringing in at least two new senior-level executives to help with the programming transformation, including one who would focus on developing original movies that could air across multiple networks and platforms. These new execs would likely report to Nina L. Diaz, the MTV vet who this year was named chief content officer for the ViacomCBS Entertainment and Youth Group.
ViacomCBS is also beefing up its efforts to use underlying intellectual property or existing showrunner deals to make content for outside platforms. Over the last year or so, the strategy has resulted in a deal to reboot The Real World for Facebook Watch and the Quibi revival of Reno 911! One big question is how much programming the ViacomCBS Entertainment and Youth Group will supply to the company’s upcoming streaming platform, expected to be unveiled later this year. Company execs may offer more guidance on this Thursday afternoon when ViacomCBS unveils its first quarter earnings.