Paramount+ Is Mining for Nostalgia. Will It Work?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and NBC

Paramount+ launches next week, and based upon a preview of the service that owner ViacomCBS offered Wednesday, there’s nothing about it that screams game-changer. That’s not meant as a slam: As sister linear network CBS has demonstrated for decades, being considered exciting or ahead of the curve by members of the media is not a prerequisite for success. And while Paramount+ as a whole may not be revolutionary, the vast and incredibly diverse slate of content outlined yesterday by the streamer actually is impressive — a dramatic improvement over the CBS All Access service it is replacing.

By now, you likely have read about many of the biggest projects headed to Paramount+ over the next year or so: Revivals of Frasier, Rugrats, and Yo! MTV Raps; the return of Road Rules and iCarly; series based on Paramount movies such as Grease, Love Story, The Godfather, and Fatal Attraction. Almost every project announced yesterday has existed in some form before, and that is in keeping with a strategy ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish has been talking up since May. Simply put, the big idea behind Paramount+ originals is to use the company’s vast library of intellectual property (or “IP,” as the cool kids in Hollywood call it) as a nuclear-powered engine for reboots, revivals, and franchise expansions. If you’ve loved it before, Paramount+ is betting you’ll love it again or want even more of it.

The streamer is hardly alone in its fondness for reliving the past, of course. Disney+ has done pretty much the same thing, though with much more beloved franchises. Paramount+, however, seems determined to test whether you can go too far in mining the past. (And I say this as someone who has taken grief from friends and colleagues for my habit of directly lobbying TV execs and producers to do reboots of Things Joe Watched as a Kid.) It is almost a guarantee that critics and folks on social media will slam the streamer for leaning too hard on recycling, and from a cultural point of view, there is reason to lament that Hollywood really and truly is now officially out of ideas.

And yet, there is a logic to what Bakish is doing here.

While ViacomCBS will spend roughly $5 billion making content for Paramount+ over the next few years, its overall budget will still pale next to its bigger streaming rivals, who will shell out up to three or four times as much. So unlike Amazon, Netflix, or HBO Max, it can’t afford to risk $200 million making ten episodes of a completely untested idea. It needs stuff that will grab attention, get buzz, activate die-hard fans — anything to convince consumers, many already annoyed at the dramatic rise in new streaming services, to part with their cash. CBS All Access had modest success doing something similar by obsessively focusing most of its development on new Star Trek franchises. This takes the same idea and applies it to dozens more fandoms connected to ViacomCBS IP. And remember, while streamers — particularly those which have been around — all want to find big hits on the scale of a Stranger Things or Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, non-linear platforms are fine with shows that have relatively small audiences as long as those viewers are passionate enough to subscribe in order to see their desired content.

There is another reason relying on reboots could be a smart play for Paramount+ early on. While the streamer will be home to dozens of shows from the ViacomCBS library, in many (maybe even most) cases, it does not have the exclusive streaming rights to those shows. Indeed, in some cases, Paramount+ will share shows with multiple streamers: Inside Amy Schumer, for instance, is also on HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video. But by greenlighting continuations or spinoffs, Paramount+ can tout itself as the best place for superfans of a show to experience the series — not just the reruns, but the latest evolution of That Show You Love.

Plus, as other streamers have already demonstrated, reboots and franchise extensions don’t have to suck. WandaVision is one of the most clever shows I’ve seen on TV in years. Saved by the Bell on Peacock got really good reviews, and deservedly so — it is lightyears better than the original. And it may be sacrilege to invoke the name of his holiness Norman Lear in defense of a major entertainment conglomerate, but it should be noted that three of Mr. Lear’s most loved works — Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons — were spinoffs of All in the Family. This does not mean that the Paramount+ reboot-a-palooza will usher in a new golden age of streaming, or that its reliance on the past is good for the culture. But as programming models go, it is not entirely dumb — particularly if it proves to be a short-term strategy as the service scales up over the next few years.

It’s All in the Details

Some other initial thoughts on Paramount+:

While the bigger streamers have little to fear from the new kid in town, I think Paramount+ could ruffle some feathers over at NBCUniversal’s Peacock. For the same $5, Paramount+ is offering consumers vastly more original content, a much bigger movie library, and even CBS’s NFL games. If I’m a cord-cutting consumer with just $5 to spend on a mid-range streaming service, Paramount+ seems at least as tempting as Peacock — and for some consumers, maybe even more of a deal. (Of course, bigger picture, NBCUniversal has arranged for upwards of 30 million cable subscribers to get Peacock for free, so for many folks, it won’t be an either/or proposition.)

At $5 per month, Paramount+ will be a buck cheaper than the current CBS All Access, despite having dramatically more content. The one difference: Unlike existing CBS All Access plans, the basic tier of Paramount+ won’t include a live feed of local CBS affiliates or, oddly, newscasts from CBS-owned TV stations around the country (though a couple of those local feeds are on Pluto). Bakish told investors cutting out the local feeds will make it easier to offer Paramount+ in channel bundles; it also means cutting off affiliates from a not insignificant revenue service. Affiliates aren’t being shunned completely: Live feeds will remain part of an ad-free version of Paramount+ for $10 per month.

It was easy to overlook given the volume of news Wednesday, but ViacomCBS streaming chief Tom Ryan said Paramount+ will eventually add linear channels to the platform, allowing subscribers the chance for the sort of lean-back viewing experience you get with scrolling through a cable lineup. Peacock already offers this and, of course, ViacomCBS-owned Pluto TV perfected the idea of virtual channel surfing. Ryan co-founded Pluto, and his success scaling up that business is a key reason Bakish put him in charge of the company’s entire streaming portfolio. I argued last year that Pluto, not CBS All Access, should be the centerpiece of the ViacomCBS streaming universe, and I still think that would make sense given the company’s historic strength in generating ad revenue. But having Ryan put some Pluto DNA into Paramount+ is the next best thing.

➽ There is no doubt the new Paramount+ will have one of the largest movie libraries in streaming — upward of 2,500 films later this year, once a new deal with the Epix cable channel goes into effect. But I was depressed at how the new Paramount+ appears to have little desire to dig deep into the Paramount TV library for more classic small-screen content. As it is, CBS All Access has a bad habit of serving up incomplete series runs of some of its best-known shows: You can watch some episodes of Happy Days, Taxi, and Laverne & Shirley, but not the complete series runs. And while TV Land (and Nick at Nite) are beloved brands within the MTV Entertainment group, they’re not getting hubs on Paramount+. I have been told by streaming execs that TV shows made before 1990 don’t do very well with audiences, but I think it is a mistake for a streamer connected to both CBS and TV Land to ignore such a rich potential audience base.

Comedy Will Be Central

Taking a cue from some of its rivals, ViacomCBS overwhelmed investors and the press with a sort of shock and awe strategy Wednesday, pelting them with a pile of press releases trumpeting various projects in the work for the new streamer. But as noted above, the abundance of announcements underscores just how much the company is betting on the notion that nostalgia is the way to lure subscribers.

That is certainly the case with comedy: In addition to the aforementioned Frasier reunion, Paramount+ will be home to numerous new riffs on classic properties from Comedy Central, the ViacomCBS-owned cable network that marks its 30th birthday this summer. Amy Schumer is reviving Inside Amy Schumer in a series of five specials, while Reno 911! and Workaholics are getting the movie treatment and Beavis and Butt-head will begin its journey to a weekly series on cable with a movie on Paramount+. “We wanted to make the biggest projects to reignite the biggest volumes of our iconic library,” MTV Entertainment Group president Chris McCarthy explained to me in an interview earlier this week. “We want to remind audiences Paramount+ is now the home for this great comedy.”

The new projects will all be part of a Comedy Central-branded hub on the service, housing thousands of hours of programming from the network’s past as well as comedies from the libraries of CBS (I Love Lucy), Paramount TV (The Brady Bunch, Taxi, The Love Boat), and even the former ViacomCBS-run network UPN (Everybody Hates Chris). The portal will also host all of the original comedy reboots and continuations in the works.

As important as streaming is for Comedy Central, it won’t be the brand’s sole focus. Much the same way Disney didn’t completely abandon its FX cable channel when it launched FX on Hulu, McCarthy says the linear iteration of the Comedy Central brand will continue to play a key role in the company’s strategy. “The wonderful part about streaming is you get to really go into what your passion is and binge it” on demand, he says. “Linear is a much more communal experience. So we think through those prisms. On the linear platform, we’re leaning much more into the topical space and adult animation, and we’ll be rolling out that slate closer to the end of this year.” As Vulture reported last summer, one big investment Comedy Central is making on the linear side is a new talk show from radio titan Charlamagne Tha God, which McCarthy says is still on track to debut this year.

And on the streaming side, McCarthy says to expect development to ramp up noticeably in the months and years ahead. “There’ll definitely be a ton more. This just really scratches the surface,” he says. “As we look across all of our brands and studios, both domestically and globally, there is an incredible wealth of content. This is what we’ll be starting with.” McCarthy wouldn’t talk about which other past shows may get resurrected for Paramount+, but during Wednesday’s presentation, among the handful of past shows he specifically name-checked as having a home on the streamer was the beloved late ’90s parody series Strangers With Candy. Might that franchise be readying a return? “We love the show, and we love Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and the entire cast, but nothing new to share today,” a rep for McCarthy said Wednesday. There’s also no word on whether Paramount+ is planning to reboot The Love Boat, though since it’s owned by ViacomCBS and reruns recently were added to the CBS All Access library, I will continue to hold out hope.

Paramount+ Is Mining for Nostalgia. Will It Work?