The (Other) Man Behind the Yellowstone Kingdom

How Paramount’s Chris McCarthy turned Taylor Sheridan’s cable hit into streaming’s biggest franchise.

Photo: Jesse Dittmar
Photo: Jesse Dittmar
Photo: Jesse Dittmar

When Chris McCarthy took control of Paramount Network at the end of 2019, he inherited a hot new hit (Yellowstone) and a really big headache: The business model of linear TV, particularly cable, was crumbling even faster than the most dire forecasts had projected. The Kevin Costner–led drama was already one of the biggest shows on cable, and yet amazingly, it wasn’t yet the money-printing machine a similar-size success might have netted even a few years earlier. “While it was bringing in about $150 million in revenue, it was losing about a third of that,” the exec says. As McCarthy saw it, the promise of Paramount Network had run right into “the harsh realities of where we were” in the TV business, and he needed to figure out a way to fix it — fast.

The dilemma for McCarthy was pretty straightforward: Whatever boost Yellowstone was giving Paramount Network in terms of higher ratings and ad revenue circa 2019 was being offset by ratings declines in other time periods, diminished subscription revenue as consumers cut the cord, and of course, the high cost of making the series (including Costner’s salary). Worse, because execs at Paramount Network’s parent company (then known as Viacom) weren’t yet ready to jump into the streaming wars, they sold the so-called SVOD (subscription video on demand) rights to Yellowstone to Peacock. That helped push the show closer to profitability, but it also meant that when Viacom merged with CBS Corporation and eventually launched Paramount+, this emerging hit couldn’t be used to attract subscribers and build the suddenly all-important streaming business.

McCarthy decided he needed to do two things quickly: Make Yellowstone an even bigger, broader hit on Paramount Network and figure out how to create a halo effect that would turn cable viewers into Paramount+ subscribers. To accomplish the first goal, he made the high-risk decision to move the show from a safe midweek airdate during the summer to a Sunday berth in the fall opposite the NFL. He also pretty much eliminated whatever other scripted-series development Paramount Network had in the works to focus the network’s energies on Yellowstone. At the time, it played like a retreat from scripted — and, in fairness, it was. But most other cable brands were in similar downsizing mode, with corporations such as Disney and WarnerMedia (now Warner Bros. Discovery) shifting scripted efforts over to their streaming platforms. Paramount Network under McCarthy was at least going to try to turn one show into a monster hit.

The other part of McCarthy’s plan to make Yellowstone a soldier in the streaming wars required a series of long conversations with series creator Taylor Sheridan and the blessing of McCarthy’s boss, Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish. Betting on Sheridan’s almost superhuman ability to generate new ideas and scripts, McCarthy announced a sprawling new multiyear overall deal with the writer-director, one which imagined a small universe of Sheridan-created series, in early 2021. Some would be directly connected to the world of Yellowstone (1883), while others would simply be tonally related (The Mayor of Kingstown), but either way, these new shows would be in production and streaming ASAP. And that’s what happened: By year’s end, the first two Sheridan-verse series debuted, getting linear previews behind original episodes of Yellowstone before shifting over exclusively to Paramount+.

Yellowstone. Photo: Paramount+

Since then, the momentum has only continued — both for Sheridan and McCarthy. Two more Sheridan-produced series (Tulsa King, 1923) joined the streamer last year, while Yellowstone has seen its Paramount Network ratings continue to explode: It’s now the most-watched show on broadcast or cable TV. More importantly, the new series have been a major driver of sign-ups for Paramount+, contributing mightily to the streamer’s rapid growth in 2022. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s stock inside Paramount Global has similarly risen. Last fall, Bakish gave McCarthy — whose title is now CEO of Paramount Media Networks — oversight of Showtime’s creative output and linear-cable business, leading to the decision in January to rebrand the cable network as “Paramount+ with Showtime.” The result is that McCarthy is now one of three key creative execs overseeing content verticals at Paramount Global, working with CBS chief George Cheeks and Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon boss Brian Robbins.

McCarthy has overseen a lot of consolidation and downsizing over the past few years: The aforementioned implosion of the traditional cable model has forced conglomerates to do more with less in linear while shifting their focus to streaming. It’s resulted in lots of headlines about layoffs and canceled shows, particularly at legacy media companies such as Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery. But amid all the restructuring and realignments, not to mention a global pandemic, McCarthy has managed to transform Yellowstone from a budding hit into a monster franchise, one that extends well beyond the narrative confines of the original series. Earlier this week, the exec talked to Vulture for more than an hour about how he teamed with Sheridan to build this mini-TV empire, how it might evolve should Costner decide to mosey off, and whether we might soon see Yellowstone-related series on CBS. McCarthy also talked about his plans for remaking Showtime (including boosting hot newcomer Yellowjackets), the future of Paramount+, and perhaps the biggest mystery of our time: Why does Ridiculousness now make up so much of MTV’s schedule?

So when Paramount Network and Yellowstone launched five years ago, the idea outlined by your boss, Bob Bakish, and execs at the time was to make prestige TV that appealed to the heartland of the country as opposed to aiming first for critics and folks on the coasts. It was a more populist approach to Peak TV, and it seems like everything you’ve been doing since then sort of leans into the same idea. 

I think one of the things that Paramount has been phenomenal at over several iterations, including the current one, is: We’ve always been in the commercial side of the business. CBS has been number one with adults 18-plus, I think it’s 19 of the last 20 years. Nick has been number one with kids for something like 20 years, and MTV’s been number one with young adults 12 to 34 in our total day ratings, something like 18 out of the last 20 years. We’ve always been focused on making mass commercial hits. And what that means is, it has to appeal to everybody from the coast to the center, and in an environment that actually involved commercials.

So we didn’t have the luxury of just focusing on niche or passion projects. Instead we learned how to make something that could appeal to everybody, and all at once. That’s a benefit of understanding mass culture. So, while we’re new to streaming, we’re not new to hit-making. When you think about The Challenge or Drag Race or the Shores or South Park or Yellowstone, those are big hits that are designed to appeal to the center of the country and the coast. That’s very different than a lot of other people have been doing in streaming.

There’s a difference in the demographic makeup of the Paramount+ subscriber base, then?

It shows when you look at the numbers in Paramount+, we certainly do fine in A counties, but relative to the other streamers, we definitely over-index in B, C, and D county, and that’s really the benefit of appealing to the masses. It’s also the reason why, of all the people that Walmart could partner with to compete with Amazon, they chose to partner with Paramount+.

So this is different from how Netflix and Amazon Prime Video started: They adapted the early HBO cable strategy on originals, which was “do the best, most premium shows possible” —  a.k.a., “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” But your philosophy at Paramount, whether linear or streaming, has always been, “No, it’s still TV”? 

Totally.  And I’d say we’re more mass TV. And listen, I’m a huge fan of HBO. I love many of the shows they do. I think they can do a phenomenal job. It’s all content we love, and we’re aiming Showtime into that space. Showtime already has a great history in that space.

Let’s go back to Yellowstone specifically. You took control of Paramount Network and thus the show in late 2019. The series was already a big hit, and it was boosting the fortunes of the network. But you didn’t just greenlight a few more shows to build on its success. Walk me through how you approached the situation.

One of the privileges — some people would say the burden — I’ve had every time I’ve risen up in the company, is that it was at a time when there was a business in crisis. My prism has always been radical reality — not trying to get caught up in, like, “What could it be?” but rather, “Where are we at, and what are we really going to place our bets on?” That happened at MTV and VH1, which really were the beginning of our franchise strategy for the cable side of the business. I was radically real about where the environment was. I had studied the movie industry and understood the only way the movie industry survived to what it is today is by running into big franchises. People think it started on television, but really, Star Wars was one of the first big franchises that started in the ‘70s.

So I brought that thinking over to Paramount Network. Kevin [Kay, the first president of the channel] and more specifically Keith Cox with the scripted development did a phenomenal job. But Paramount Network also met with the harsh realities of where we were with the cable landscape. Certainly Yellowstone was phenomenal. It had broken through the pack. I think it was number two in cable, but when you looked at the total TV ranking, it was number 71. And while it was bringing in about $150 million in revenue, it was losing about a third of that.

But when I started to dig into the numbers, what I began to understand was that this show had something no other show had. The majority of its [viewers] were in C and D counties, and my thought was, if we could actually go all in on this show and actually bring it up to that level in A and B counties, we’d have a huge hit. But to do that, we had to make other hard choices.

Right. You famously killed several other series that were in the works at both Paramount Network and its sibling channel, TV Land. 

There were a lot of other shows that didn’t make the cut. Some of them we thought were equally as great, just in different ways, like Emily in Paris. And I was just radically real that Emily in Paris was a show that was not going to work on commercial television. But by bringing it over to Netflix, it turned out to be a big smash for us and for them. We own the fundamental IP, we own the rights, we own the long-term of that. So, we’re going to reap the benefits of that for a long time to come and hopefully created a new franchise there. But to boost Yellowstone, we had to make some harsh choices elsewhere.

You also made a big call to move the show to Sunday nights starting with the season-three premiere in 2020.

There were some questions from a lot of people about moving the show from Wednesday to a Sunday, and then moving it from the summer to the fall and going head-to-head with the NFL. But my hunch was that habits had changed so much. So we moved it over and it quickly went not only to number one in cable but number one in broadcast. And that made a dramatic difference in the revenue. Now it’s one of our most profitable franchises.

That’s amazing given it’s not a cheap show to make. 

No, it’s not cheap. And I think the people have a misconception about cheap versus most profitable. I’m looking for what is going to drive the biggest possible profitability. And oftentimes, it’s not the cheapest thing, but it’s the thing that you think really has the ability to go run the whole model. And even in that, we had some convincing to do with some of our partners internationally because people thought westerns are just a U.S. thing, but in reality, westerns are an idea about exploring new spaces, seeing what’s out there. I’m so thankful that we pushed hard and did that, because we have the [streaming] rights to Yellowstone for most of our major markets, and it’s the number one or number two series internationally.

But of course, you didn’t have Yellowstone streaming rights in the U.S., since they were sold to Peacock before you took over Paramount Network. And that reality was the other reason to go all in on the franchise strategy, right?

That deal was done before the company merged, and it’s truly because of that deal that we had to be innovative and creative and find a new way to bring the show to the service. And that’s where we came up with the idea of the Yellowstone franchise.

Did you not worry about scaling up to multiple series so quickly, though? It’s one thing to do different versions of a network crime procedural. It’s different with something that’s a premium cable show. 

We had lots of heated debate, creative debate about this. And I think people often get confused with what a franchise means. They often think it’s too easy, or there’s no creativity in that. In fact, it’s actually harder than new series, because what you have to do is understand that you have a built-in mass fan base, and if you don’t meet and exceed that fan base’s expectations, you’re really causing damage to the main show. And you have to find an opening to bring in new fans, because the best franchises expand the world and bring in new audiences.

Was it important to make the first spinoff, 1883, a prequel versus a sequel? 

Every bit of work I’ve done around this shows that if you start off with a sequel, what you’re going to find is, you bring the core audience and then unfortunately, [the ratings] go down. But every origin story has the opportunity to bring new fans in while bringing back lapsed fans as well, and bringing the core audience all the way in. And to this day, 1883 is bringing in new subscriber sign-ups each and every week. It’s one of our top five subscription drivers, not just here in the U.S., but internationally. I think there was also this misconception that we’d be cannibalistic on Yellowstone, but if you look at the international numbers, where we have both Yellowstone and 1883, they are two of the top three acquisition drivers in almost every market.

What’s been most fascinating to me about the expansion of the Yellowstone/Taylor Sheridan universe is how quickly it’s happened. You launched four shows in a little more than a year, and you’ve got another three or four in the works. You’ve moved fast in other parts of your career, too. Why the rush?

The first time I was lucky enough to get a leadership role was running VH1. Within the three months that I was running it, we went through three CEOs, the third being Bob. Bob also gave me MTV. And I remember looking at Bob and saying, “How much time do we have?” And he’s like, “We need to turn this thing around in three to six months.” So speed has always been just who we are as an organization. We move really quickly and place really smart strategic bets that don’t always pay off. But more often than not, they do.

In terms of the Sheridan shows, what’s the pace going to be going forward?

So each year, we’re going to be launching at least one Yellowstone franchise as well as one complementary series. We did a lot of research and deep dives into what is the essence of what makes Yellowstone work.  And really, at its core, it’s family dynamics, it’s power dynamics. It’s a little bit of corruption, but under the core, it’s  family above all else. Mayor of Kingstown is a great example of that and so is Tulsa King. If you look at those shows, they all look different. But if you think about the story, they’re all very similar and they’re all family dramas and they’re all shot beautifully with big movie stars and all of them are delivering huge numbers.

Our goal is always to have at least two every year, but we’re already ramping out well above that. So, 2021 was Mayor of Kingstown and 1883 and last year was 1923 and Tulsa. This year alone, it’s going to be a second season of 1923, it’s going to be Lioness and Bass Reeves — and that’s just on the streaming space. In linear space, we have Yellowstone and we’ll have a brand new Yellowstone universe series.

So you’re definitely planning a new Yellowstone series for Paramount Network? Is this the much-discussed Matthew McConaughey show

It’s the must-discussed franchise. [Laughs.] There’s a bunch of different ways we could take the story. Thankfully, Taylor’s mind and his creativity is endless. So, while we’re not ready to commit and comment on it, as anyone who’s watched the most recent season, you see Jimmy go to the Four Sixes pretty often. You also see flashbacks to when these particular Duttons are younger, with Beth being in her teenage years, and you could easily see there being a story coming into that which fits very complimentary into the present day.

With Taylor, creativity is endless, and we’re thinking through all of those different options and excited about many of them. And I will say, we love Matthew McConaughey. We’ve always been big fans of his. We’d love for the opportunity to work together, and it really speaks to the quality and type of talent that Taylor brings out, from Harrison Ford to Helen Mirren to Jeremy Renner and David Oyelowo, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and Sylvester Stallone. These are the who’s who of Hollywood and I think that really speaks to the quality and caliber of the programming that Taylor brings. We’re not trying to do the volume that other players are doing, but what we are trying to do is big cinematic hits that are popular and commercial and get people coming back more and more.

So I know you’re not going to just tell me if this is going to be the final season for Yellowstone, but can you see a world where there are two Yellowstone-branded shows running on cable, on the Paramount Network? Does the economic model support that in 2023? Or is it likely that a new show for cable would, in fact, replace the original Yellowstone?  

The nice thing about each of the different iterations of the Yellowstone universe that we’ve made is, not only are they massive for us but they’re also quickly profitable independently and collectively. I think we’re definitely going to have two this year. I think that maybe the question you’re getting to is, will Kevin stay? And there’s been lots of hype around that and the thing I always say is, Kevin has been a huge part of the Yellowstone franchise. He’s one of the reasons it’s successful as it is today, and he’s been great for us to partner with and we hope that he stays for a long time to come.

But if he doesn’t, can the show that’s called Yellowstone continue without him, or would it likely end if he leaves the show?

I think we’ve definitely proven that the franchise Yellowstone is well beyond any one series and well beyond any one star. Certainly, each one of those stars help to make the universe much bigger and brighter than we’ve ever seen in modern television. These are franchises that are being built in real time and at the same time. No one has seen that. And frankly, it’s no different than what we’ve done for years on the unscripted space with Drag Race and Challenge. We just premiered a brand-new Challenge in Argentina and had 60 percent share in its premiere night, six-zero.

Right, but even if Mr. Costner were to leave, why not just continue Yellowstone? Grey’s Anatomy is going on without its titular character appearing on a regular basis. Is the reason to end it simply to end the streaming-rights situation with Peacock? 

I think if the show wasn’t tied up with Peacock, there would be a real valid conversation around that. In a world where these franchise extensions are becoming bigger than the main show and they’re driving the future of our business — not only bringing in new audiences but quickly turning profitable — I think in that world, we’d be very challenged to continue that show where the rights are tied up, when we can create a new series extension, or new world related to the bigger franchise, that is unencumbered and can drive both our linear and our streaming businesses both domestically and around the world.

On the flip side, is there not a benefit to Peacock paying you millions every year the same way Netflix gives you millions for Emily in Paris?

The financials are very different. I think Peacock was smart. I’m not going to take anything away from them. They got the series at a fraction of the cost because we didn’t have the streaming service and the show wasn’t nearly as big as it is today. With Emily in Paris is, Bela [Bajaria] and her team have done an incredible job of making it bigger.

There’s no doubt streaming is the future of television, but having a linear base for Yellowstone really did let it reach critical mass pretty quickly. How did you leverage linear to expand the audience for the show and the franchise?

While everyone’s talking about the streaming space, what isn’t reported as much about is the massive linear footprint we have. We have the leading portfolio of cable networks with the most share across all of television. We reach viewers from cradle to grave. And so what we also have is a massive marketing platform to reach out to each of these audiences and create custom creative marketing to bring them into the show. For VH1 and some MTV and Comedy Central shows, we did a lot with Beth. With CMT and with TV Land, we took advantage of John Dutton and the patriarchal image of who he is. What it did was, it created a new opening for everybody to come into the show.

We also do a two-week preview [of new shows] on Paramount Network before moving it over to Paramount+. And it’s proven to be incredibly successful and highly efficient. It allowed us to focus our off-channel marketing dollars on new fans, not necessarily the existing ones that we had.

I had heard some buzz that there were some early discussions about turning Yellowstone into a CBS show.  

I’m a business strategist at heart that just happens to be in creative. So the first thing I look at whenever I come into a new business or a new brand, and I mean this, is I get radically real: Where is the asset best utilized within the company? And we absolutely looked at CBS. We looked at Showtime. And you know what? We landed back at Paramount Network because it made the most sense. CBS, as you pointed out, has a different set of [content] standards. George [Cheeks] and I had multiple conversations and it was clear that it didn’t make sense for us there. But what did make sense is to move it from the number 71 biggest series to number one. It may be at a smaller distribution [on Paramount Network], but it’s delivering at an equal level. So, I think for all intents and purposes, we’ve delivered against that.

I guess the reverse of the “why not move it to CBS” question is, why has’t there been a Taylor Sheridan show ordered at CBS? I know you don’t program CBS, but have you talked to them about expanding his empire to broadcast TV?

We have multiple extensions and series and development that will be coming to fruition with Taylor. And as you pointed out, we wouldn’t be smart strategic business people if we weren’t already thinking of that. No news to report today, but certainly don’t be surprised if you see something rather soon.

So your boss, Mr. Bakish, has set up an interesting system for funneling content onto Paramount+. There is no single exec who sets the overall creative agenda for the platform. Instead, you, George Cheeks, and Brian Robbins all sort of funnel TV shows and movies and other content from your respective studios onto the service. From the outside, it almost seems like he’s set you up in a sort of bake-off to see who can create the most hits, and maybe one day replace him as CEO. Is that a wrong way of looking at things?

I think people are missing the bigger point if they think the three of us are competitive. We are very supportive of each other and each other’s teams and only want each other to win. There is absolutely no bake-off there because we have very complementary skill sets, and each of us has been taking on more. I think what Brian and his team do at theatrical and kids is second to none. And the same thing when it comes to George: George knows the broadcast space better than anybody else. We’re all about helping each other as much as we can, whether that’s us creating The Challenge: USA for him on CBS, or promoting Fire Country by giving it as many runs as we can across the cable portfolio, or potentially doing the Yellowstone universe procedural. And George was phenomenal at featuring Yellowstone and Tulsa King in the NFL games and using that massive platform that he built to promote our shows. I think that’s the benefit of the trio partnership that we have, plus Pam Kaufman who leads international. Each of us are experts in our lane, and it’s a four-legged table.

I get that, but you don’t have control over the marketing of your shows for Paramount+. You don’t get to shape the user experience on the app which can play a role in whether consumers can find your shows there. Isn’t this a bit like what Disney did with its exec structure — the one Bob Iger just dismantled?

As I said before, the company as a whole has never had the resources that others have, but we have consistently outpunched our weight class. And what makes that work is something Bob [Bakish] pioneered, which is a matrix model. We each share many resources across the organization and Paramount+ is the best example of that. None of us control the marketing that reports into Tom Ryan, but we’re all critical in driving the marketing as it relates to our particular products. We have absolutely creative input into the design, how it looks, how it’s tested and collectively, we decide where the most money’s going to be put in: It’s going to be around the biggest hits. Any of us are quick to say, “Listen, that resource should go somewhere else if it’s going to drive more starts.” Because our single goal is, how do we actually become a top-three service in the next year? We’re all just pushing the ball forward to make it bigger, faster, quicker than anybody else. And I think the results speak for themselves.

The thing that’s different from us than any other company is, we all designed it together knowing that there wasn’t going to be enough resources for any one of us to make every decision. This was something that we all built together. It wasn’t something that was thrust upon us. That’s why no one’s fighting and instead it’s gas for us to move things forward.

Rethinking Cable

Speed clearly was a good thing when it came to the expansion of Taylor Sheridan’s creative footprint. But I’m curious if you have sometimes moved too fast in other areas, such as the linear cable networks. Over the last few years, you’ve announced big plans to remake them that didn’t actually move forward. You didn’t do ten to 20 movies for Comedy Central; you didn’t change Paramount Network into Paramount Movie Network and do a new movie every week. Did you get ahead of yourself? Or was it just that the cable business model got a lot worse, a lot more quickly than feared? 

I think for each one of these brands, what we always said is, we’re going to do a couple core things for each. For Comedy Central, it was The Daily Show and it was adult animation. And we’ve expanded the deal with South Park and Matt and Trey. Now, we make series and movies. We rekindled our relationship with Mike Judge, and we just premiered Beavis and Butthead as a pair with South Park and it’s already a top-five animated series across linear. So, the strategy’s working. Same thing with Yellowstone.

Now the big “a-ha” that changed in that three-year period is we had the pandemic where you saw about a billion dollars in ad sales leave the market. And you’ve also seen the increase in the decline in subs, So, some of the “nice-to-have” things went away, but we still kept the core tenets. Do I still wish we had the resources to do that? Absolutely. But that was always the part two. Part one was to double down on the things that make the brand and the business famous, and deliver for our consumers and our [cable affiliate] partners and frankly, for our streaming business. That’s the harsh reality: The environment changed. And I think what you see with us is we don’t wait a lot to hope things get better. We move quickly. You got to move forward. Because the last thing I want to do is disappoint creatives. I don’t want to disappoint people with false hope. You’ve got to drive change or be driven by it.

Staying on the evolution of linear, one of the questions I get most often from my colleagues at Vulture and from people on Twitter is, “Why is MTV’s cable lineup now like 90 percent Ridiculousness”? MTV is hardly the only cable network that has turned its daytime lineup over to a couple titles. And some have gone further than you, programming shows which seem very much off-brand. But why Ridiculousness, and why so much of it? We live in an on-demand world where people can use streaming to binge, so what’s the point of doing that on linear?

I think you just answered it with the question: “In an on-demand world, why do you run with Ridiculousness?” The same people that ask you those questions, I’d ask them when was the last time they turned on the television and just leaned back and watched for hours on end? If they did, they were going to one of their favorite channels that delivered them one type of show — one of the home shows they create on HGTV or the Housewives on Bravo. The people who are leaning back on and watching linear television, that audience is older. They’re on linear because they don’t want it to change. And what they love more than anything on MTV is Ridiculousness.

Ridiculousness is one of these genius shows that is perfectly, scientifically designed to get older, younger, right, left — it brings them to their instant happy place. And I think what people get confused about is they think we’re still doing 20 episodes a year, when generally, we tend to premiere 8-12 new Ridiculousness episodes per week. And that show just absolutely delivers for the audience that is left watching daytime television. That audience is a lot smaller.

If you were to look at MTV’s biggest shows, what you would see is it’s things like The Challenge. It’s Drag Race and it’s Jersey Shore. The viewer watches on demand or with their DVR. They never come to the channel anymore. They’re about 10 years younger. And they love those shows. But if you’re leaning back, watching just straight live TV, most people who are watching non-primetime linear TV are there to watch one or two shows, whether it’s Ridiculousness or, on other networks, Friends or The Office or House Hunters International.

And yet people really seemed to get worked up about MTV doing it.

I think because MTV was there at the beginning of cable, people put a lens on it. It holds such a special place for them and they think that the changes in viewing habits that are happening on linear must be different [for] MTV.  But because MTV is such a meaningful brand, one of the first things I did was to launch MTV Entertainment Studios. We had to liberate the brand from the channel … which now has our least amount of viewing. So that’s why all of our shows open with the MTV Moonman insignia and the [“I Want My MTV”] tones that remind people of how big and iconic the brand is.

You don’t think there is an audience then that is still on cable that would respond to a linear schedule? Or to bring back music programming and videos?

We have four channels that do exactly that, and they’re our least-watched channels.

Since you said years ago that you would be focusing on brands versus channels, tell me what the MTV and Comedy Central brands stand for today now that they’re not tethered to a cable network.  

I’ll first start with Comedy Central. At its best, it has always been about adult animation and commentary on current culture, specifically political culture. And that is what it still means today, whether it’s South Park, whether it’s Beavis and Butt-head or Tooning Out the News or a new series we have with Andy Samberg, Digman!. So Comedy Central is still what the audience wants it to be. And as for MTV, it celebrates the spirit of young in all of us — the unorthodox, the non-conformists. That’s what MTV at its core has always been. It’s been about someone who doesn’t follow the rules and someone who’s blazing a path on their own. And that’s also what MTV’s studio stands for.

I think there’s a misconception that we all wish it wasn’t still the good old days in cable. Of course we do! It would’ve made all of our jobs a lot easier. But we’re at a fork in the road. We can choose to wish things were the way they were before, or we can lean into the future and drive the change. I’m not going to dwell in the past. I want to drive and create the future.

One more Comedy Central question: I have to ask how the search is going for the next host, or hosts, of The Daily Show. Should we expect an announcement soon?

I think we’re still in the same timeline. By the end of this sort of spring cycle [of guest hosts], we’ll be in a great place to relaunch a show in the fall.

So by the start of the summer, you’ll have your plan?

That’s the hope, yeah.

The Showtime Question

Let’s talk about Showtime, which you just recently took over. You’re going to be rebranding the cable version of Showtime as Paramount+ with Showtime. That feels like an incredibly awkward name for a cable channel. It makes sense as the premium tier of Paramount+, but I’m struggling to understand why it’s being called that on cable TV.  Walk me through how you got here.  

I think the Paramount brand and the Showtime brand stand for two very different things. When we looked to launch Paramount+, we tested a bunch of concepts. We tested Paramount. We tested Showtime. We tested a few other new names. And what came back loud and clear is both Showtime and Paramount+ had brand awareness well into the 90th percentile. The difference was they had very different meanings. Paramount is a brand that for the last 125 years was one of five brands that brought you almost every movie or television series. You couldn’t ask for a bigger, broader entertainment brand to house everything from SpongeBob and Star Trek to South Park and the NFL. We wanted to create a service that was different from everybody else, that appealed to everybody from coast to coast. And that’s why we decided to call it Paramount+.

Showtime is a very strong brand as well. But in the world of cable television, it never has had more than a third of the cable world subscribe to it. So what does that mean? That means that 70 percent of the audience knows who you are and says you’re not for them. But 30 percent of the audience says, “We know who you are and we love you.” And that audience says, what do we want? They want provocative, edgy, more sophisticated, mature content. In addition, Showtime carved out its own unique lanes with  shows like Queer As Folk and Soul Food at a time when HBO was focused on Sex and the City and The Sopranos. So they were mass culture and we were diverse cultures. So the reason we’re bringing these services together is because those brands appeal to different segments in the population.

So when I turn on channel 410 or wherever Showtime is on my cable system, am I going to see “Paramount+ with Showtime” as a logo and in my program guide?

Yellowjackets. Photo: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

I think we’re all trying to work through what the architecture is for all these brands, whether it’s FX on Hulu or whether it’s Paramount+ with Showtime. Far be it from me to say that we’ve been able to come up with the perfect mix, and I’m sure things are going to evolve. But when you say it, there’s no question about what it means. It helps you to understand: What I’m getting is the best of Showtime and the best of Paramount+. And that’s what our goal is: to bring these brands together that really serve different audience segments but together make a much more complete package for our consumers, for our content creators and for our shareholders. We’re able to put more resources into the content and less on things that we don’t need to both support, whether that’s platform teams or marketing teams.

And tell me about the content mix for the new cable channel. You’ve said there will be Paramount+ programming there, so can we expect episodes of, say, 1923 or some other Taylor Sheridan show to be simulcast there or air in reruns?   

Absolutely. I mean, right now we have 20 or 25 channels within the Showtime package. So, you could easily see a non-commercial kids networks with the best of Nickelodeon with no commercials. Or you could see us do a pop-up channel with 1883. Or you could see us co-premiering content. Really what this is about is, whether you’re a cable subscriber or whether it’s through streaming, we want to make this the most attractive proposition to cable operators and consumers. We want to really be agnostic about whether you subscribe to us in cable or in streaming. Though quite honestly, the economics are better for us in the cable space. We’re not trying to force consumers to move from one platform to the next, but rather meet them where they are. We want to make the platform you’re on as rich and rewarding as it can be.

And conversely, you’ve said the Showtime Anytime app for cable customers will sunset by year’s end. I assume that means that if I pay for Showtime on cable, I’ll be able to stream the new season of Billions via the Paramount+ app? Sort of the same way HBO’s cable customers have access to HBO Max?

Our goal is to have a seamless experience for the linear consumer so they get all of Showtime and the best of Paramount+ on the linear channel – as well as getting full access to the Paramount+ with Showtime app.

You’re coming into Showtime just as the network is about to premiere the second season of one of its buzziest hits in a while, Yellowjackets. Tell me what its success tells you about what works for the brand.

I think here’s a great example of how IP and new [shows] work together. I would argue that if Dexter wasn’t back,Yellowjackets wouldn’t be as big as it is. And I think the team and the creators would agree with that. It’s a combination of franchise to build a foundation, and something new that’s fresh but familiar. And in many ways, you could say that [Yellowjackets] is a revelatory take of what Dexter was when we launched it 20 years ago. That is the power of our franchise strategy.

I’m surprised that you’re still planning to stream new episodes of the show on Fridays but not premiere them on Showtime cable until Sunday night. HBO and Paramount Network have shown the power of a linear launch. Why diffuse the buzz around each episode by essentially having two premieres each week?

Younger audiences don’t necessarily want to wait for a timeslot, but the linear audience, the older audience — they come to expect things to be on a Sunday since that’s Showtime’s big night. So, I think what the Showtime team did well before we came into the space is, they created a model that actually works really well. They gave the show to the audience who wanted it on streaming a few days earlier, but they still preserved that Sunday night destination. And what you’re going to see us do this season moving forward is, we’ll use our full cable portfolio to promote the Yellowjackets series on linear much harder, and doing that on Sunday nights. Frankly, we’re indifferent about which night you watch it, and how you watch it, but you’ll be hearing about us talking about it more across each of the platforms.

The initial reaction to your announcement that Showtime would be focusing on three “lanes” of content and going all in on IP and franchises was that you were getting out of the new ideas business. You told the Los Angeles Times last week that this was a misunderstanding, and that you’ve been going out to creatives and agents a better idea of what you want to see. So what are you looking for?

We’ve talked about it consistently with everybody: It’s these three lanes. When Showtime relaunched originals around 2000, it was around diverse cultures with very specific focus on those to LGBTQ and African American audiences. And to this day, those are still two of our most loyal audiences, whether that’s The L Word or The Chi. So what I want to do in those particular lanes is round that out to more than just one series a year, and actually have a consistent presence for those audiences year-round. So, I’d say that’s one.

The second phase of Showtime’s originals invention or reinvention was in the mid-2000s with Dexter, Weeds, and Shameless, where they created this sort of anti-hero. These are complicated characters that are anti-heroes, and yet we root for them, we want them to win. So, I think that’s a lane that we want to own. It’s very complementary: Paramount+ focuses on heroes, and on Showtime, we focus on the antiheroes.

And then the third lane really came in the third evolution of the brand, which is around these powerful, high stakes worlds. That started with Homeland and then with Ray Donovan and Billions. Those shows are set in three unique worlds that we’re all aware of — the CIA, Wall Street, and Hollywood. And so we’re going to continue to really refocus on programming in that lane, because we haven’t had as much. The Billions franchise is a great example taking that from a series about Wall Street to a franchise about money, power, and corruption. So whether it’s new or an iterative version of one of our franchises, those are the pitches we’re looking for. When we talk to the creative community, they really appreciate the clarity around those lanes.

And how many shows do you think will fall under the Showtime banner every year?

I’d say we’re going to continue to deliver what we’re delivering today, but what you’re going to see is a much different mix. You’ll see more franchises and you’ll see a lot more stability. While Showtime has tried to go a lot bigger and broader, what has consistently worked over the past five years is really things that fall in those three lanes. And we’ve had a lot of big swings at Showtime, but unfortunately, they haven’t delivered. We’ve launched 23 new series over the past five years and only two have continued and proven to be massive hits — Your Honor and Yellowjackets. So you’re going to see us with a much more focused lens on where we develop and launch, and you’re going to see a way higher hit ratio. That will prove to be way more rewarding for our consumers and for our creatives because they’ll see their series renewed and much more stability.

MTV leadership over the decades used the network as a platform to for social change, like with “Rock the Vote” and “Choose or Lose.” How are you continuing that in this age when MTV isn’t anchored to a linear channel?  

The world has changed a lot since we launched in 1981. And as much as we still wanted people to watch us on the channel, that world has long left us. When we launched our campaign around the 2016 election, we thought it was a great campaign. We thought we were going to make a big difference and drive record youth turnout, but in fact we had barely had an impact. And it was frankly disappointing.

But it gave us an opportunity to take a cold hard look at ourselves, the landscape and what’s a different way to create a voter drive campaign. And so, with our partners, we created marketing materials around “Vote Early Day.” We drove record youth turnout, the highest in the nation’s history in the next election in 2020. And more recently, we partnered with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative for the Mental Health Storytelling Coalition.

I’m curious about how your personal upbringing and background has influenced how you make decisions. I asked an agent for his take on you, and he said he appreciated how quickly you make decisions and act, and said one reason was because, and this is a quote, “He’s not a reader.” By that he meant you don’t spend hours poring every script or going to endless casting sessions. Tell me how you got where you are, and how it has shaped your management style.  

Growing up in a blue-collar family, in a steel-country family right outside of Philadelphia, being the only person I knew that was gay until I became my 20s, one of the things I learned very early on to survive was be to take on obstacles and make things that people couldn’t figure out solutions to and make that a win. And if I could do that, I wouldn’t get picked on. So that became a quintessential trait for myself: I enjoyed taking on complicated, messy problems and coming back with a solution. I think there’s way more fun to be had in something that people don’t quite see the opportunity in, dusting it off, and finding a fresh, new, creative way to do it.

Nielsen historically classified urban and rural population centers by size, with big metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles listed as “A” counties and the smallest towns and cities getting a “D” categorization.
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