CBS’s Success and the Case for Paramount+

CBS’s Success and the Case for Paramount+

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Bertrand Calmeau/CBS

Every spring for the past 14 years, CBS has been able to put out a press release touting its status as America’s most-watched network during the official nine-month TV season. It’s typically packed with a lengthy list of boasts (“most-watched drama!,” “No. 1 new show!”) designed to impress upon the reader just how popular the Eye network remains with audiences, even as the overall universe of people watching linear networks continues to contract. This year’s dispatch from CBS HQ was no exception, but below the annual avalanche of superlatives, it also included one new bit of braggadocio: CBS is responsible for 17 of the top 30 titles on sibling streamer Paramount+.

Given the emphasis all streamers, including Paramount+, put on their own ever-lengthening rosters of pricey originals, it might seem surprising that more than half of the most popular programs on Paramount Global’s signature streamer come from the decidedly unsexy world of network TV. And yet, when you think about it, it’s actually not that much of a shock. Nielsen’s weekly lists of top SVOD shows regularly include multiple network TV staples, both current (NCISGrey’s Anatomy) and past (SeinfeldCriminal Minds). During Netflix’s formative years as a streaming platform, network comedies such as FriendsThe Office, and Parks and Recreation consistently tallied more viewing hours than many of the company’s own early slate of originals, which is why those shows are are now being used to build the subscriber base for NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WB Discovery’s HBO Max. And some of the biggest streaming success stories in recent years have been series that were either aired on (or were originally developed for) broadcast and basic cable platforms, including You (Lifetime), Emily in Paris (Paramount Network), Lucifer (Fox), and Manifest (NBC.)

The message audiences are sending to streamers is pretty clear: We may not like the endless ads, random reruns, and confusing scheduling of network TV, but actually, we kind of like the kinds of shows it makes. And that’s turning out of be very good news for CBS, which over the last decade looked out at all the changes brought about by the streaming revolution and consistently said, “Yeah, we’re good”:

➽ Instead of green-lighting fancy period dramas or Emmy-bait anthology series in a bid to compete with the premium fare on streaming, it opted to keep evolving its proven formula of procedural dramas and big-laugh comedies.

➽ When other networks decided to cut costs by adding more and more reality and game shows to their lineups, CBS found a way to keep the percentage of its schedule devoted to scripted series relatively high.

➽ Even as ABC, NBC, and Fox all rushed to give Hulu next-day reruns of their primetime shows back in the late aughts, CBS refused to play ball. It kept those streaming rights in-house, launching CBS All Access years before former Disney CEO Bob Iger had his supposed breakthrough idea that a company should fully control its digital destiny. Pundits can debate whether the strategy fully worked — All Access never really broke out — but the Eye’s decision to not devalue its core product by renting it to Hulu probably helped maintain the strength of the CBS brand and its linear ecosystem.

➽ And you know how folks are always joking about how CBS’s shows skew so [gasp] old? Turns out that was smart, too: Those geezers have abandoned broadcast at a much slower pace than millennial and Gen-Z viewers, leaving networks that chased those younger demos far more exposed to the perils of cord-cutting. CBS programs account for 13 of the 20 most-watched series on broadcast this season, and it’s the only network that still has shows that average more than 10 million viewers within a week of their initial telecast (NCIS and FBI).

Obviously CBS has not been immune to the ravages of audience erosion that have battered linear networks. Its press release proclaiming victory for the 2011–12 TV season noted it dominated the year with an average audience of 11.7 million viewers; a decade later, the Eye won the 2021–22 season by averaging a mere 6.4 million viewers. But other networks have lost an even bigger percentage of their viewership, and as the aforementioned Paramount+ stats indicate, many of the lost linear eyeballs are now being replaced by a rapidly growing streaming audience.

What’s more, because the linear CBS audience is still pretty hefty, Paramount is better positioned than any other media conglomerate to use its broadcast network as both a content pipeline and a promotional platform for its streaming service. NBC and ABC are obviously attempting a similar play with their efforts to essentially make those networks tiny little divisions of Peacock and Hulu, respectively, while Fox is going big on synergy with Tubi. But because CBS’s entertainment programs generally reach so many more viewers than those on other networks, the Eye has a distinct advantage in making it all work.

Paramount chief financial officer Naveen Chopra talked about this during the company’s most recent earnings call, arguing that the company’s diverse linear ecosystem — led by CBS — gives it “the ability to fundamentally change the economics of streaming” on multiple fronts. On the content side, the exec noted that “a lot of pure-play streamers” — read: Netflix — “have to spend billions of dollars a year renting library content. We have that in-house.” Plus, in terms of marketing, Chopra said the scale of CBS’s weekly audience makes it easier for Paramount+ to build awareness of its own originals. “We have access to a lot of very valuable, very powerful promotional inventory,” he said.

Expect to hear a variation of Chopra’s message next week when CBS and other parts of the Paramount Global empire strut their stuff during upfronts, which after two years of virtual presentations will be returning in person around New York. Unlike the before times, CBS and the broadcast networks won’t be the sole focus of these splashy sales pitches. But it seems likely that at least at Paramount, the Eye will still get plenty of attention, particularly after another season in which it dominated the Nielsen ratings and launched a blockbuster comedy hit in the form of Thursday night smash Ghosts.

Ahead of next week’s schmoozefest, Buffering caught up with CBS president and CEO George Cheeks to talk more about the success of the network’s often old-school approach, how it fits into Paramount’s broader streaming ambitions, and why he’s aleady thinking about expanding the universe of Ghosts.

BUFFERING: The press release announcing the network’s ratings victory for the season noted that shows from the network and CBS Studios account for more than half of the top 30 titles on Paramount+, and that they do well on Pluto TV as well. Do you find yourselves guiding CBS Entertainment president Kelly Kahl and his programming chief, Thom Sherman, to develop series with streaming in mind? Or is the success sort of an after-the-fact fringe benefit? 

CBS president and CEO George Cheeks.
Photo: Shedrick Pelt/Getty Images

GEORGE CHEEKS: There’s real intentionality around sitting down with the creative team and saying that this is what we’re looking for, this is our filter now. Our filter cannot just be just solely focused on CBS because we are now a cross-platform brand and we are now an important driver for Paramount+ and Pluto TV — not just as a content engine, but obviously as a marketing support as well. So in scheduling meetings now, when talking about these shows, it’s of course, first and foremost, how we believe they’ll perform on CBS and where they should go. But there’s also quite a robust discussion around whether we believe that this has potential to be a streaming driver as well. The sweet spot is finding those shows that appeal to that core CBS audience, which we know is older, but then finds that unduplicated, younger audience on streaming. And the strategy keeps getting validated because a lot of these shows that we’re launching, as well as our returning shows, are doing very well on both platforms. The average age for CBS shows on Paramount+ is 18 years younger than the age on CBS linear.

How much does a show’s performance on Paramount+ play into how you judge its success? Something like The Thing About Pam didn’t set the world on fire in the linear ratings for NBC, but they made a big deal about its audience on Hulu and Peacock. Do you view things similarly?  

We take a more holistic view on what success means in a world where people are consuming our content in different ways. SEAL Team is a perfect example of a show that was a solid performer on CBS that really over-indexed on Paramount+. But it was a top-three original show on Paramount+ during its original run and drove engagement on the library by 300 percent. So we converted it into a Paramount+ original, using CBS to anchor it with a four-episode premiere before it became a Paramount+ original.

If it was doing well on both platforms, why not keep it on both — have your cake and eat it too? Or was it just a matter of opening up prime-time real estate for CBS? 

Part of it is real estate. We have so many shows that have worked for so long, there’s not a lot of slots that are open. But I also wanted to test the traditional notion of what a streaming original looks like. And I think these are the conversations you’re probably having on the Netflix side, too. A lot of these four-quadrant procedural shows can work extremely well from an engagement standpoint in terms of their library but also from an acquisition standpoint as originals. And I think SEAL Team really proved that.

So will we see more shows that launch on CBS and then get converted into Paramount+ originals?

I think it’s highly possible. Because, again, when we approach these programming decisions, we now look at them holistically, and by holistically, I primarily mean CBS and Paramount+. So I could easily see that conversation happening again. Another obvious conversation would be spinoff extensions of proven franchises on CBS then having a streaming original version on Paramount+. We’re doing a version of that internationally. We announced NCIS: Sydney, which is going to be a local version of NCIS produced for Paramount+ in Australia and for linear-platform Network 10. It will end up airing on Paramount+ U.S. as well.

How actively are you committed to finding more of these franchise spinoffs of CBS shows for streaming?

I’m constantly in conversations with our key creators and showrunners on some of our bigger franchises. I’ve said, “While you’re thinking about breaking next season, think about what a streaming version of a spinoff could look like.” I very much believe in this franchise strategy. I believe that what Paramount Media Networks chief Chris McCarthy has done with the Taylor Sheridan universe is the right approach for us. Our titles that have worked well on CBS, or performed well on Netflix or Paramount+, deserve universes of their own. And that opens up the possibility of doing originals made for streaming. In the reality space, we’re looking at the same thing. Not just extensions but actual outright spinoffs that can live exclusively on streaming, particularly for those reality shows that have really strong, passionate fan bases.

You just did a deal to make Paramount+ the exclusive streaming home for past episodes of Ghosts, but a lot of your big shows like NCIS stream on Netflix as well as Paramount+. Shouldn’t those be kept entirely in the Paramount Global universe?

I think you have to take a very title-by-title, bespoke approach. There are titles that you really do want to have exclusively in your ecosystem because I think that does drive value. Ghosts is one of those titles. But I remember in my NBC days, you could have SVU on ten different platforms, and it would overperform on all of them. I think the user experience is tricky if they’re not available at all on Paramount+, but I think co-exclusivity or exclusivity — I think that should be a title-by-title strategic decision.

You want the ability to sometimes make extra money by selling off some of the rights to other platforms.

We all know now that you can’t get away with not focusing on return on investment, and free cash flow, and all the things that Netflix is dealing with now.

Speaking of Netflix, we’ve had this sudden vibe shift in streaming, where suddenly the coolest kid on the block is being talked about as some sort of outcast. What’s your take on what’s been happening to them and what it means for the larger conversation about streaming?

I don’t need to talk about any of our competitors. What I would say is I believe in our differentiated strategy. I believe in the power of having cable, premium cable, ad-supported subscription video on demand, FAST (free ad-supported TV), and a huge broadcast platform to help drive not only content but drive awareness and drive conversion. In terms of the promotional support that CBS gave Paramount+ in 2021, it was worth $4 billion — that’s billion with a b — impressions. So a differentiated product strategy while the streaming business continues to evolve is just a better place to be.

I recognize that it’s a challenging time. I recognize that all the stocks are getting hit right now. But I really have always believed in the differentiated strategy and the power of broadcast to help drive it forward. We have incredible reach — more reach than any of the broadcast networks on linear. But then we also have these shows that are translating to younger audiences when you look at it from a cross-platform perspective. So I couldn’t feel better about this past season.

Ghosts is obviously a great example of that. Even though it does well with younger demos on CBS proper, it’s also finding another big batch of viewers on P+, where it’s the platform’s most-watched comedy. What’s the lesson you’re taking from its success? Does it encourage more risk-taking at the network?

I don’t think it necessarily encourages tons of more risk-taking, but I think it just validates the idea of when you really believe in something, even if it doesn’t fit into a bucket of what you thought you were going to pick up, trust your creative instincts. And we trusted the Ghosts team, and they really delivered. I don’t think anyone in our world could ever have predicted the level of success we hit. It also validates our franchise strategy, which doesn’t necessarily mean existing franchises but actually picking up shows that we believe are franchise-able.

Oh, so you think there could be spinoffs of Ghosts

It’s early days, but I think it creates a universe. I don’t know why a concept like that could not lend itself to being franchised because there’s a whole world that’s been created through this show. I’m really focused now on “We’ve got a big hit, let’s protect it and shore it up for season two.” But I think that’s highly possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

➽ It looks like the Great Streaming Apocalypse has skipped over Disney, at least for now. The Mouse House Wednesday reported that signature streamer Disney+ added nearly 8 million subscribers during the first three months of the year, much better than the roughly 5 million analysts had predicted. After Netflix’s decline during the quarter, and its projection of steeper losses to come, it was a nice bit of news for the streaming industry. But Wall Street, now very much in glass half-empty mode, ignored the D+ gains and seems to be focusing on comments by Disney execs suggesting growth could slow a bit in the second half of 2022. As a result, Disney’s stock was trading lower Thursday morning.

➽ The broadcast networks will begin selling fall advertising inventory almost immediately after wrapping up next week’s upfront presentations. But it looks like they’re going to have some major unexpected competition: Netflix, which only a few weeks ago said it might launch an ad-supported option in a year or two, is now rushing to do so by this fall. Given the company has exactly zero ad sales infrastructure in place, I don’t know if it will be able to start battling for advance ad commitments at the same time the linear networks start negotiations. But the knowledge Netflix will have inventory available much sooner than expected could theoretically prompt some companies to be more cautious in the coming weeks, knowing they’ll soon have access to a very attractive new platform.

CBS’s Success and the Case for Paramount+

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