For Better Or -Verse?

Allow me to preface this with the caveat that I like and respect Bob Bakish for the most part.  In a company that has seen more than its share of drama and questionable behavior in recent years under the tumultuously toxic regimes dominated by the libidos and egos of Sumner Redstone and Leslie Moonves, in his domain, primarily as head of international operations, Bakish was a highly successful and respected executive, determined, a fierce negotiator and by all accounts someone who cherished going home to his family once his work was done.  When he was tapped to head the entire Viacom company in 2016 , it was a move that was applauded both by internal executives and by the investment community.

The restructuring and synthesizing of the Viacom empire that Bakish oversaw when he took command built around the pillars of its most successful and iconic networks and brands–BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount.  Each of these built their own identities and stature within both the advertising and creative communities by championing original, groundbreaking, alternative content.  South Park?  Rugrats?  The Real World?  Music awards ceremonies that grew to greater relevance and stature than the Grammys on two of those networks?  They define their spokes, and allowed for other shows to be estalished as compliments, not copycats.

Which is why the report that emerged yesterday about how Bakish is choosing to integrate another iconic brand, Showtime, more fully into what is now the Paramount family of brands was, tactfully, more than a bit disappointing.  Per Nellie Andreeva of Deadline:

Showtime has been going through downsizing and recalibration since the November ouster of longtime CEO David Nevins and the premium network’s inclusion in Paramount Media Networks President Chris McCarthy’s portfolio. There have been layoffs, series cancellations and an executive restructuring as McCarthy articulated the plans for the network, which will soon be rebranded as Paramount+ with Showtime. They include multiple TV universes built around some of Showtime’s biggest series, including multiple Dexter and Billions offshoots.  During the Morgan Stanley conference Wednesday, Paramount CEO Bob Bakish addressed the strategy and indicated that other Showtime series could be revisited too.

“We’re leaning into our Showtime franchises,” he said. “You could think of the slate as smaller, which will be less expensive, but also really giving the people what they want, which is more Showtime, maybe more Dexter, maybe more Ray Donovan, and really leaning into that.”

Showtime already revived Ray Donovan once, bringing the show back to give it a proper ending with a movie following its abrupt 2020 cancellation.

Bakish also spoke about the move to integrate Showtime and Paramount+, calling it a “win-win-win” for consumers, the company and shareholders. With the consolidation of the streaming platforms, the company will be raise the price of Paramount+, making the business more profitable more quickly, he argued.

“It costs more money to market two brands, two products, two platforms, two organizations,” Bakish said. “And all that’s being consolidated into one.” The exec reaffirmed the company’s prior projection that the move will save the company about $700 million.

In his remarks, Bakish also spoke about the company’s decision to turn down a $3B bid for Showtime and touted the upcoming Mission Impossible movies.

The playbook is one straight out of those of Paramount’s competitors, and leans heavily into the metrics and monetization of streaming platforms.  It’s easier to promote a new chapter in a pre-existing IP world than to introduce something unique, particularly in a landscape where getting any attention is difficult.  Leveraging previous versions and seasons of content in walled garden environments opens the potential for more time spent, “echo” viewership for catch-uo that often is attached to the promotion, and cross-platform utility for those assets to help drive box office or viewership of the latest content.

Now if you’re talking about something like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, well, great.  Tom Cruise is certainly the company’s MVP more than ever now, the franchise has made billions, particularly lately, and the global appetite is still enormous.

But, really, Bob?  RAY DONOVAN?

RAY DONOVAN was a well-received, decently viewed procedural drama that, when it premiered in 2013, set viewership records for Showtime.  Liev Schrieber and Jon Voight were outstanding in their roles, the “film noir” technique was captivating, and it continued on through the balance of the decade.  But over time, the show ran its course, both creatively and in ratings.  The “wrapup” movie that aired last year was, per IMDb, given a “meh” average rating of 6.9, with a flat demographic profile across all measured groups.   By any standard, actual Nielsen viewership was equally modest.

And, to be sure, there were more successful and enduring franchises for Showtime both before and since.  SHAMELESS ran eleven seasons and grew over time, for example.  And being a hit on Showtime has always been relative.  Virtually nothing that the service has launched ever approached the viewership levels of an HBO hit.

There is almost nothing other than the fact that it’s a wholly owned entity that Paramount controls to suggest that yet another -verse be created around it.  And as more and more services try and follow the lead of Disney and Marvel to build out universes that orbit around a mothership brand or signature show, the size of the “–verse”, and the half-life potential as the brand is dissipated, begins to attenuate.

The revival of DEXTER, which was an even stronger premiere franchise for Showtime (and, briefly, for CBS) in the decade prior, that began with NEW BLOOD in 2021, has not been a breakout.  BILLIONS, for all of its critical acclaim, has been a show more loved by creatives than the masses.  Indeed, many creatives seek to incorporate the kind of dramatic storytelling in their own ORIGINAL works rather than try and extend or rip off a world that, for all intents and purposes, is merely an updated, darker version of WALL STREET.

So to read that Bakish is slavishly following the urges of Wall Street that seems to respond to what they already know versus what they can imagine as his formula to make Showtime more profitable, so much so that he chose to reject the impassioned offer by the network’s recent leader and creative champion, David Nevins, to take it off his hands and his ledger, and cite bringing back a show that was satisfactorily brought to a conclusion roughly a year ago, was disappointing, if not as infuriating as it was to the likes of Nevins and many of his now-displaced team of executives who nurtured and built the most recent series of critical darlings.

And at the same time, the news that Paramount is looking to shed themselves of BET,  a brand they purchased from its founder and champion Robert Johnson in 2001 and grew to levels and brand extension that, for all of Johnson’s passion and drive he would have never been to able to reach on his own, was equally as disappointing.  The importance and significance of that brand to an audience sector that disproportionately embraces streaming television, and indeed consumes more content on average than does the average viewer, can’t be understated.   Yes, in the hands of a Tyler Perry or a Byron Allen, the two leading contenders for its purchase per reports from numerous sources this weej, the potential and nurturing of the brand will be strong.  But lacking the direct connection to the Paramount family will hamper its global reach and promotional clout, and will likely devalue it over time.

I’ve mocked the band-aid-like reaction to turning a brand like Showtime into a postscript to follow a plus sign, and many who saw Showtime become a truly pioneering brand who actually worked there are distraught about its future.  Paramount+ is struggling, to be sure, and while the economics that Bakish laid out are favorable in the short term, it’s difficult to see a lane where it survives at all.  Is RAY DONOVAN truly a strong enough brand to stand on its own?

There are numerous independent film festivals this time of year.  Creative, visionary writers, producers and talents are looking for places to embrace their talents.  Exactly where they will be able to do that is becoming an increasingly difficult question to answer as strategies like this, as well as the courses being set by Disney and Warner Discovery.  Sure, some of the people could be brought into these -verses to inject their own spins–assuming they have such passion.  Many artists are driven by their own desire to tell THEIR story, much as the creators of these -verses were allowed to in a less judgmental climate.

When I joke about David Zaslav as “Yosemite Zas”, it’s done with more reverance than snark, but it’s a chilling sign to creatives that, more than ever, the mission of those now running “Hollywood” is economically driven.  So connecting him with an iconic animated character in his purview is both respectful and sardonic.  In the same breath as we saw the news on Bakish’s game plan, it was noted that a new season of the revival of BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD is imminent, appropriately to be launched on 4/20.

I’d rather not think of Bob Bakish as either Beavis or Butt-head.  But when I see him try and defend a universe built around something like RAY DONOVAN, I can’t help it.

Do better, Bob.  Don’t be a butt-head.

Until next time…


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