If you’re going to launch a new streaming service one month after the Super Bowl, it helps to be the one actually broadcasting the Super Bowl. Setting aside several choice minutes of ad time during the big game, the media colossus known as ViacomCBS let everybody in the country know that Paramount+ was coming on March 4.
The campaign — which raised awareness if not expectations — showed a crew of iconic ViacomCBS personalities, from Dora the Explorer (Nick) to Jeff Probst (CBS), hiking to the summit of “Paramount Mountain,” where they were greeted by an entirely too giddy Picard, aka Patrick Stewart (All Access). Many observers thought, though, that Beavis & Butt-Head, the two idiots who made a fortune for MTV in the Nineties, stole the show. In one ad they heard the word “crack” and reacted with their tagline snigger, “Huh huh huh, she said ‘crack.’” Later in the game, B&B watched in awe as the girl from The Ring spun round and round in the campaign’s 60-second finale.
But what is it, exactly?
Paramount+ is the rebranding of a premium service that’s been around since 2014 called CBS All Access. That name, with its backstage-pass aura, was meant to sidestep the awkward little fact that CBS had been, for seven decades, a free over-the-air TV offering. Now viewers were being asked to pay for the privilege of watching reruns of The Big Bang Theory and live feeds from the Big Brother house.
To sweeten the deal, CBS All Access began producing original shows. First up in 2017 was The Good Fight, a spinoff of CBS’s The Good Wife, a show with a built-in fan following. Then came the first new Star Trek franchise in over a decade, Star Trek: Discovery, which launched on CBS before moving over to the premium streamium. Discovery had a wobbly start, churning through three showrunners before Trek veteran Alex Kurtzman was brought in to right the ship, but now it’s a solid performer for All Access and has been renewed for a fourth season. That was followed by the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks and last year's Picard, which saw Stewart return to his iconic role from Star Trek: The Next Generation. As subscriptions picked up, the Trek spinoffs piled up. Of the two dozen originals produced for All Access since 2017, fully one-quarter bore the Trek name.
Of course, Star Trek was never a CBS property. The original show aired on NBC (as did the classic SNL sketch), The Next Generation aired in syndication, and Voyager was on UPN, now half of the CW. Star Trek is, rather, a Paramount property that CBS got to use thanks to its longstanding relationship with Viacom. The two companies first got married in 1999, only to separate in 2006.
So why the name change?
Even though CBS All Access subscriptions doubled in 2019 and doubled again in 2020, that only added up to 8 million paying households — compared with 70 million for Disney+ (which didn’t launch until late 2019) and 200 million for Netflix. Clearly the CBS brand only gets you so far.
As other companies began making their moves into streaming, Sherri Redstone — whose father Sumner Redstone created Viacom and managed the original merger with CBS — urged the couple to get back together. Which they did in 2019. By this time Viacom had also picked up a streamer called PlutoTV. I’ve written about Pluto and Peacock as free, ad-supported alternatives to paying for streaming TV.
In 2020 NBCUniversal leapfrogged CBS All Access in subscribers, thanks to its savvy introduction of three tiers of Peacock, ranging from free to 10 bucks a month. So it was only logical, Captain, that ViacomCBS would follow suit. And why not use the best-known name in your corporate tent? Thus we have Paramount+ for $9.99 a month ad-free, along with an ad-supported version launching in June for $4.99, both showing content from the company’s vast library, and the more limited PlutoTV as the free tier.
What’s the relationship to the Paramount Network?
Good question! Nobody knows for sure, but you can bet ViacomCBS executives are taking a hard look at Disney’s decision to launch a branded FX channel on Hulu. Paramount Network, formerly known as Spike, has already shuffled one of its originals off to streamland — Coyote, a promising limited series starring Michael Chiklis, which dropped on CBS All Access in January. Paramount Network’s biggest hit, Yellowstone, is currently licensed to Peacock, but will surely make its way back to the Paramount+ ranch.
Linking the cable and streaming channels makes sense. People are cord-cutting at record levels, yet Paramount Network remains in more than 50 million homes, several times the streamer’s current reach.
So what’s up there on Paramount Mountain?
Viacom includes some of cable’s best-known brands: MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, CMT, Comedy Central, Pop, TV Land, VH1, and the Smithsonian Channel, as well as Paramount Pictures, the country’s second oldest film studio with its iconic (and much-manipulated) mountain logo. Besides the CBS network, CBS also owns Showtime (which is already offered as a standalone premium streaming service).
Much of the Paramount+ launch is devoted to extending these cable brands onto a premium service — a SpongeBob movie, a Real World: New York reunion. And yes, our two favorite mouth-breathers are also returning. Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge is working on new projects related to his pride and joy, including a spinoff (which I’m hoping will be as surprising and wonderful as the last spinoff, Daria).
Viacom is bringing a lot of comedy throwweight to Paramount+ through its Comedy Central brand. Early announcements include new episodes of shows with Amy Schumer, Trevor Noah, and the Reno 911! gang. Paramount+ is also sitting on 6,000 episodes’ worth of situation comedy, including Frasier. Kelsey Grammer has agreed to play Dr. Frasier Crane for the third time (the first time was on Cheers, another Paramount show). The new series will be called Frasier as well.
One welcome addition to Paramount+ is news. You may have spotted Gayle King, the leading light of CBS News, trekking up Paramount Mountain, and both breaking news and live sports are set to stream on Paramount+. Plus, 60 Minutes — the No. 1-rated show in America the past two weeks — has launched a spinoff on Paramount+ called, naturally, 60 Minutes+. That’s a far cry better than the warmed-over news segments and MSNBC-lite programs airing on Peacock.
But if Paramount+ is to earn its plus sign, it can’t just rely on old brands, it will have to create new ones. That’s hard. Peacock has only so many old shows like Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell that it can revive. CBS and Viacom have an impressive catalog but none that really rise to the level of a Marvel or Lucasfilm. Which may make it difficult to pull off what Disney+ did in a little over a year — launch two promising franchises in The Mandalorian and WandaVision. On the other hand, Paramount has come back from the dead on several occasions during its century of existence, and between CBS and Viacom there's a lot of intellectual property to inspire The Next Generation of creatives. All in all, there’s a lot of upside for the latest addition to your streaming menu.
Wait until June when the ad-supported tier becomes available. At $4.99 a month, Paramount+ is a no-brainer. Two no-brainers, in fact, huh huh huh.
Paramount+ launches on March 4.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.