Viacom’s cable portfolio was once a shining example to the rest of the industry, but the company has been struggling to revitalize its most important brands for years. With the merger between Viacom and CBS now officially underway, the health of those brands is more important than ever.
When Bob Bakish took over as president and CEO in late 2016, he specifically called out six core networks — MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount Network — as the keys to Viacom’s success. Since then, Viacom has reorganized its executive ranks and laid off employees across numerous brands as it attempts to lure viewers and streamline for the digital age.
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Among the more significant of these moves: In May 2018, Debra Lee stepped down as the head of BET after more than a decade at the helm of the African-American focused cabler; In October of that same year, longtime Viacom executive Kevin Kay departed the company, where he oversaw Paramount Network, TV Land, and CMT. Kent Alterman now leads the Comedy Central, Paramount Network and TV Land group, while Chris McCarthy expanded his role as president of MTV, VH1, and Logo to include CMT; Around that same time, Awesomeness TV founder Brian Robbins was tapped to take over Nickelodeon following the resignation of longtime network head Cyma Zarghami.
The programming strategies for Viacom’s cable channels have evolved amid changes in leadership and direction in recent years. Here’s where they currently stand.
Comedy Central is anchored by legacy franchises like its stand up specials, “The Daily Show,” “South Park,” “Tosh.0,” and “Drunk History.” In terms of ratings, the network notched a modest 1% increase in total day adults 18-49 in Q2 of this year, but also nabbed 1.7 billion social streams in the same time frame, its best quarter ever in that measure. Meanwhile, “South Park” is preparing to enters its 23rd season, which will also see the adult animated comedy cross the 300 episode mark. The network has also launched well-received shows like “The Other Two” and “Corporate” in recent years. Comedy Central is also preparing to launch a new scripted series from Awkwafina as well as an interview series from Anthony Jeselnik.
Viacom rebranded Spike TV as The Paramount Network beginning in January 2018 with plans to refocus it as a more general entertainment network. Since the rebrand, the drama series “Yellowstone” has proven to be a breakout hit, routinely drawing an audience of around 5 million viewers in delayed viewing. Other Paramount Network fare has been less fortunate. The limited series “Waco” garnered some critical acclaim, but the network’s series version of “Heathers” — originally meant to help launch Paramount Network — had its premiere date pushed back multiple times in wake of several school shootings. Paramount Network eventually aired the entire series over five nights last October. Spike reality holdovers like “Ink Master,” “Bar Rescue,” and “Lip Sync Battle” continue to air on Paramount Network. Upcoming originals include Darren Star’s “Emily in Paris,” a series adaptation of the cult film “Sexy Beast,” and the drama “Coyote” starring Michael Chiklis.
The network, which began as a home for reruns of classic shows, pivoted to original scripted fare in 2010 with the launch of the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.” That strategy has failed to produce almost any hits, with the notable exception of the critically acclaimed “Younger.” That show remains a strong draw in its sixth season, notching a 15% increase in the key demo in delayed viewing over the fifth season premiere. Under Bakish, several shows that had either aired on or been in development at TV Land were shuttled over to Paramount Network, though none of those shows survived more than a season once they made the move. There were also plans to move “Younger” to Paramount Network for its sixth season before Viacom reversed course and kept it on TV Land. As it now stands, TV Land has no announced new originals on the horizon, with “Younger” being the sole TV Land original on its schedule.
Nickelodeon and other kid-focused brands have seen significant ratings drops as more and more young people have grown up in cord cutter households. In 2018 alone, all of Nickelodeon’s most popular programs saw double-digit linear viewership drops from the previous year. Network cornerstone “Spongebob Squarepants” alone saw a 30% drop year over year. Since Robbins took over, Nickelodeon has been making moves to expand its digital presence; announced its first ever spinoff of “Spongebob Squarepants;” acquired the rights to develop series based on Paddington, Garfield, and Lego movie characters; announced revivals of several of its classic shows; and set a first-look deal with multi-hyphenate Kevin Hart. The network has also ordered a space adventure series from Imagine Kids & Family and an animated “Star Trek” series from CBS TV Studios.
BET surprised many back in June when it was announced that the cabler was preparing to launch a standalone streaming service called BET Plus. With the merger formally announced, however, it seems likely the new service will eventually be tucked into an existing streamer like CBS All Access. BET Plus will feature original shows from Tyler Perry as well as much of Perry’s library content. Tracy Oliver’s “First Wives Club” series is also expected to air on the service. That show had previously been in development at TV Land, Paramount Network, and BET before landing at its current home.
CMT managed its highest-rated years since 2014 at the conclusion of 2018 in the key demo, while the CMT Awards saw a noticeable increase in viewership. The latter increase was largely due to the awards show being simulcast on seven differnt Viacom networks. In terms of scripted shows, CMT previously revived the ABC country music drama “Nashville” for two more seasons after the broadcaster canceled it. Scripted shows like “Bounty Hunters,” “Sun Records,” and “Still the King” lasted one or two seasons at most. The network has now pivoted back to more unscripted programming like “Music City” and the Nashville-set reality series “Bachelorette Weekend.”
Logo’s LGBTQ-focused programming was formerly anchored by the acclaimed and highly-rated reality competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The show drew record audiences for the network, but Viacom moved it to VH1 ahead of its ninth season, with encores continuing to air on Logo. Likewise, the spinoff — “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” — moved to VH1 ahead of its third season. Since then, Logo has not programmed many originals but continues to air syndicated content.
MTV was one of few networks to post ratings gains in 2018, thanks in large part to shows like “Jersey Shore Family Vacation” and “The Challenge.” The network posted double digit gains in all but the adults 18-34 demo, and ranked fourth among all entertainment cable networks in total viewers for the year. MTV has had a rollercoaster ride in terms of programming strategy over the years. The one-time music branded network pivoted to mostly unscripted programming for a time, before launching into original scripted shows in the late 2000s. The network managed to produce a number of popular shows like “Teen Wolf,” “Scream,” and “Sweet/Vicious.” But under Bakish’s direction, MTV pivoted back to mostly unscripted fare like “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation,” “Floribama Shore,” and “The Hills: New Beginnings.” However, MTV announced the launch of MTV Studios last June, with the network recently ordering a “Daria” spinoff series with Tracee Ellis Ross set to voice the main character, Jodie.
VH1 found success with its string of “Celebreality” programs such as “The Surreal Life,” “Hogan Knows Best,” and “Flavor of Love” as well as its “I Love…” franchise. The network has continued to focus on reality programming despite some scripted shows like “Daytime Divas” and “The Breaks.” The focus on unscripted shows has helped buoy the network’s ratings in recent years, with shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Basketball Wives” and the “Love & Hip Hop” franchise all remaining top ratings draws week after week.