Speaking at Recode’s virtual conference Code Media on Wednesday, ViacomCBS’s chief executive Robert Bakish said sports programming will be instrumental in separating Paramount Plus from its rivals when it launches sometime next year.
Bakish said live games from the National Football League, the NCAA, the PGA and other major leagues and conferences will help it compete in the over-the-top streaming space that is becoming crowded with free and premium services alike.
“Some of our competitors have been less successful in articulating their positioning,” Bakish charged. But ViacomCBS is hoping sports programming coupled with news and other live events will give the service a leg up.
Paramount Plus will take the place of CBS All Access, one of three premium streaming services offered by ViacomCBS. Some programming from the other two — Showtime and BET Plus — will be incorporated into Paramount Plus when it rolls out next year, but will otherwise remain separate offerings.
The company’s free, ad-supported streaming service, Pluto TV, will also remain an standalone offering, something Bakish said was important in its mission to reach as many streaming TV households as possible.
“You want to be able to define Pluto as the leading free entertainment service…and simultaneously build a business at scale that people…are willing to pay for,” Bakish said, adding that the company is all in on the belief that “having two distinct brands that will work together…is the way to go.”
That model is similar to one used by the Walt Disney Company, which offers its commercial-free Disney Plus service for $8 a month alongside its premium, ad-supported television service Hulu for another $6 a month. The two services are offered as a single package with ESPN Plus for $12 a month, and an ad-free version of Hulu is available for a few dollars more.
Both ViacomCBS and Disney’s strategies are different from one used by rival Comcast for its NBC-powered Peacock streaming service. That service offers a limited amount of TV shows and movies for free with ads, though customers can pay $5 a month for an expanded, ad-supported library or $10 a month to get rid of ads completely.
Where things start to differ are marketable opportunities: Both Disney and Comcast have marketing channels beyond television to target potential subscribers. Disney advertises its streaming services in its retail stores, while Comcast offers different Peacock tiers at a discount — or even free — to certain customers of its pay TV service.
ViacomCBS, on the other hand, has television and movies, which makes Pluto TV an attractive avenue for promoting Paramount Plus and its other streaming services. Bakish said the company is also hoping to trade on the Paramount name, which has resonated in the film and television industry for more than a century.
“This is a 115-year-old studio that has been continuously reinvented over a century, starting with the talkies,” Bakish said, using a slang term for motion pictures.
Paramount and CBS appeal primarily to an older, more-seasoned audience, while some of ViacomCBS’s other properties — MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central — find themselves attracting younger viewers. The new streaming service will incorporate content from those brands and others in-house subsidiaries when it launches in early 2021.
What users won’t find on Paramount Plus: Comedy Central’s breakout animated hit South Park. A distribution deal with the creators of the show meant South Park Studios jointly negotiated streaming rights for the program with ViacomCBS after its agreement with Hulu lapsed last year.
AT&T’s entertainment division WarnerMedia won the bidding war for South Park, offering to pay $500 million to make its own blockbuster streaming service HBO Max the exclusive home of the program for at least the next few years.
“That decision was made at Viacom legacy, when we didn’t have a path to a scalable pay service,” Bakish said. “It made all the sense in the world at the time.”
It’s unclear if ViacomCBS would make the same deal today, but executives at the company have signaled a willingness to license older content to competing services. Earlier this month, ViacomCBS announced an agreement to bring older episodes of Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show” to Netflix and HBO Max. Users of HBO Max also gained access to other Comedy Central shows, including “Key & Peele” and “Reno 911,” under a similar agreement.
“We have a tremendous asset base in content, both from our film library, TV library and current series in production,” Bakish said in an conference call with investors earlier this month. “We can’t keep all of that for ourselves. It doesn’t make sense.”