ViacomCBS unveiled plans for its new Paramount Plus streaming service Wednesday, revealing a competitive price point and sharing hours' worth of details about the company's strategy to transition into the streaming era while maintaining a foothold in traditional TV and movies. The company also said it will honor a shortened time period for movies to show exclusively in theaters before they appear on Paramount Plus.
The new streamer's debut got off to an inauspicious start when a virtual presentation to investors was unexpectedly delayed by a half hour, yielding some ridicule from the Twittersphere.
"The inability to stream an event focused on your streaming pivot...is uh...woof," tweeted media analyst Matthew Ball, summarizing the general sentiment among bemused investors and reporters.
Once the dust settled and the constant refresh clicks could cease, a string of company executives and entertainers took to the screen via Paramount Studios in Hollywood to provide new details on Paramount Plus, which launches on March 5. The service will cost $4.99 per month with ads and $9.99 without. The higher tier will also include more content, including more live sports.
The subscription platform is a rebrand and expansion of CBS All Access, which came out in 2014. ViacomCBS president and chief executive officer Bob Bakish first laid out the business case by highlighting the service's sports and news offerings.
"Few other streaming services will offer live sports at this scale," he said, noting that the company will showcase over 1,000 events and matches per year, including NFL games, March Madness, The Masters golf tournament and the UEFA Champions League.
The service will also offer 24-hour live news coverage, including a "60 Minutes Plus" program and content from over 200 local affiliate stations.
Bakish then touted the service's vast TV offering, which he said will carry over 30,000 episodes from ViacomCBS' stable of brands including MTV, Nickelodeon, BET and Comedy Central.
"If you like reality TV, Paramount Plus is the place for you," said Bakish, invoking MTV's origination of the genre with "The Real World," which will get a Paramount Plus reboot. Bakish said the service will include over 5,000 reality TV episodes, and in 2021 will launch a new reality series each month.
Bakish said Paramount Plus will have over 7,000 episodes of kids' shows. The company plans to build out already successful franchises like "SpongeBob Squarepants," "Dora the Explorer" and "Rugrats.
Well known franchises will be getting new life on the service as well, including a reboot of "Frasier," a spinoff from the "Halo" video game and "Beavis and Butthead" movie.
Content is King
Optimistic analysts at Goldman Sachs pointed out in a note last month that Paramount Plus's expansive TV offering could be an important differentiator in the scorching hot streaming wars, which has seen a flurry of entrants over the last 18 months and now includes at least 10 viable subscription services on offer.
Paramount Plus' 30,000 episodes will dwarf the 8,000 available on HBO Max and 7,500 on Disney Plus, the analysts wrote.
Given that Paramount was one of the original Hollywood studios, it's only fitting that the service will have over 2,500 films, the company said. These will include a vast selection from both Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films, including "Forrest Gump," "Indiana Jones," "Clueless," "Anchorman" and "The Godfather."
Some yet-to-be-made films will debut exclusively on the service following a relatively short 30-45 day theatrical run, Bakish said. In the coming year these will include "A Quiet Place Part II" and "Mission: Impossible 7."
"I like that they're going to do shorter exclusive windows in theatrical but not eliminating them entirely, like AT&T did with HBO Max," said Laura Martin, media analyst at investment firm Needham.
ViacomCBS also owns ad-supported Pluto TV, which grew its global monthly active users by 80% year-over-year to 43 million, the company reported Wednesday. Bakish said the free service is poised to become a $1 billion line of business and also has potential to funnel users to its new paid service, Paramount Plus.
Some analysts are pessimistic about the new service's chances, however. Brandon Nispel, an equity analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets, penned a note earlier this month suggesting that investors sell their ViacomCBS stock.
"We believe streaming only works if global scale can be achieved, like ~100M subs," he wrote.
ViacomCBS reported on Wednesday that across its current slate of streaming platforms – CBS All Access, Showtime OTT and BET Plus – it has nearly 30 million subscribers. The company said it expects it will reach between 65 and 75 million total subscribers by 2024.
For comparison, Disney Plus has about 95 million and Netflix about 200 million.
A Streaming War Combatant and Arms Dealer
ViacomCBS' pivot from a legacy media company toward a streaming focus isn't without precedent. That playbook has worked well for Disney, whose stock has reached record highs despite most of its business lines being decimated by the pandemic.
But replicating Disney won't be easy. For one, Paramount doesn't have the brand recognition or global distribution to rival that of the House of Mouse, Nispel wrote.
Nor will it help that Paramount Plus is a bit late to the game, as ViacomCBS has been relatively slow to pivot away from its "arms dealer" strategy of supplying content to other streaming companies. Last year the company made almost a quarter of its money from content licensing, according to Bloomberg.
"Every major streaming service has had a monster hit from one of our studios," said Bakish Wednesday. "If we direct that same great content engine back to our own streaming service...we can be successful, and that's exactly what we're setting out to do."
But the tone struck Wednesday by chairman Shari Redstone indicated that although ViacomCBS' streaming ambitions are growing, the company won't be quick to leave traditional media behind.
"We're not about only linear or only streaming; we're about both linear and streaming," she said. "The industry is transitioning but for consumers it's happening at different paces and in different places."
Martin likes that strategy, which she sees as a more sensible approach than Disney's abrupt pivot to streaming.
"There's so much money in linear, so it's better to try to maximize the income from all sources," she said. "This is a better business path compared to Disney, which is all-in on streaming."
Although, in the near term at least, ViacomCBS will be straddling past and present amid the ongoing transition from cable and linear TV to on-demand streaming – which has been happening faster among younger audiences – Redstone underscored that the strategy for ViacomCBS is the same as it's ever been.
"We are a pure-play content company," she told investors, pointing them to her late father's immortal adage: "Content is King."
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ViacomCBS has struck a deal with Disney to distribute more of their content on Hulu Plus Live TV. Terms of the deal announced on Monday weren't disclosed but the agreement gives Hulu access to 14 channels including BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and Paramount Network.
CBS already had a deal with Hulu to provide its broadcast channel along with the CW, the Smithsonian Channel and PopTV.
Since merging in 2019, ViacomCBS has made a flurry of carriage deals and has been seeking to capitalize on the combination of the company's film and television assets to compete as the threat of further consolidation hangs over the industry.
The deal comes ahead of Viacom's plans to rebrand CBSAll Access to Paramount Plus this year, a streaming service that will compete with a slate of original shows and gets its name from the company's film studio, Paramount Pictures.
But the streaming landscape is becoming increasingly competitive as the pandemic has pushed theatrical releases into people's living rooms, imperiling the box office.
And even traditional cable fare is now streaming. On Monday Discovery Plus debuted its subscription service for multiple platforms, relying on a heavy dose of unscripted and reality television content from networks like HGTV, the Food Network and Animal Planet.
Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav told CNBC on Monday that he thinks he can capture viewers with the niche.
"We're a great companion to Disney and Netflix," he said. "If you have Disney or Netflix, you have two great products, but we're completely different and we go really well with them."
The two-tiered service costs $4.99 with ads or $6.99 without them.
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Bob Gerard was sitting in an office room, having just watched a public service announcement while wearing a sensor that Dr. Paul Zak had wrapped around his arm.
"When it was done," said Gerard, who had been introduced to Zak by a mutual friend who thought Zak could help Gerard improve his internal training sessions at Accenture, a professional services firm, "Paul showed me the graph that the sensor had generated, and he replayed the video. As it was replaying, he was telling me exactly what I was feeling as he was reading it off the chart. My first thought was: I need this."
What this is, is called Immersion: a software program that, in the words of the L.A.-based startup's Chief Executive Scott Brown, "measures love." The sensor monitors how a person's brain responds to a given stimulus, moment by moment. And the readout that the software generates, for up to dozens of people at a time, provides real-time feedback that could be useful for everything from testing Hollywood audiences to understanding what resonates during a presentation.
A sensor measures the brain's response to content and uploads the data
Based on 20 years of scientific research, the company said, the technology can be used to understand which moments in a piece of content — a trailer, an advertisement, a lecture — are emotionally resonant, and which moments aren't. Creators can then adjust accordingly, and gain insight from algorithmic predictions about what actions people will take in response.
Immersion, Zak explained, specifically measures two factors in the brain: attention, and emotional engagement. When these two levels are high, Zak said, a person is immersed in the material at hand.
The company, which was founded less than three years ago and has mainly been in stealth mode, grew from Zak's work as a social sciences researcher and professor at Claremont Graduate University. He is also the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, which "develops neuroscience technologies to understand how people make decisions." Zak said the two main client uses of Immersion have been entertainment — such as for film, TV shows or advertisements — and corporate trainings.
Dr. Paul Zak runs the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate College
Zak's research, which has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence community, produced a set of findings that eventually formed into Immersion's commercial product. He found that oxytocin, a molecule produced in mammals, strongly correlates with emotional resonance, and he figured out how to measure oxytocin levels and attention non-invasively. Immersion's sensors — and, as of this week, other sensors like the Apple Watch or Fitbit Versa — can capture that data, then upload it into Immersion's software, which displays people's neurologic responses in a way that is designed to allow users like Gerard to get insight about their content "without having to have a PhD in data science," Zak said.
At Accenture, Gerard estimates that he's used Immersion for hundreds of classes and thousands of trainees since signing up for the subscription service. The program has helped to reveal which parts of trainings are engaging and should be expanded, and which parts are snoozers and need to be improved. Gerard has also experimented with using Immersion for sales training workshops, wherein two employees role-play a sales pitch while the one playing the customer wears a sensor that monitors her reactions and displays them to the class in real time.
An Immersion readout
Brown and Zak said Immersion has also been designed to enable clients to predict future behavior. In fact, they claim, because it relies on brain measurement rather than what people say, Immersion can understand audience response and intent better than audiences understand themselves.
When someone's levels of emotional resonance and attention are high, Zak explained, the brain "tags" those moments as "more relevant." These moments become "more easily recalled, and therefore more likely to be acted upon," Zak said. That is, the more that one is "immersed" in the content, the more likely they are to, say, watch the film (ie, if the piece of content is a trailer) or buy the product (if it's an ad). Immersion can also, Brown said, predict whether a piece of content will be a hit. Based on numerous studies, including with big companies like Facebook, Paramount and Warner, Immersion claims predictive accuracy of over 80%.
One hurdle that Immersion faces to growing is skepticism about a "big brother" omniscience about people's "true" feelings. Zak emphasized, however, that users must opt in to having their brain activity tracked, and that clients decide how much data to collect. Accenture, for example, chooses not to gather any personally identifiable information, Gerard said. Zak also suggested to dot.LA that being able to identify specific individuals who were highly immersed could be beneficial, as those people could be used as evangelists or for peer support.
The coronavirus pandemic is not exactly well timed for the company that according to Zak is "just now taking the lid off" and doesn't have a full-time marketing team, but the founder is confident his company will survive. While some clients, including a major studio and a large appliance-maker, have had to put their subscriptions or negotiations on hold, interest is perking up elsewhere. As companies and society experiment with distributed work, Zak is hopeful that his distributed neuroscience firm – subjects need not congregate in the same room – can fill a void. He's in talks with several potential new clients that are working from home at a distance.
"You want to test content and see what the brain's responding to?" Zak asked. "Right now, we're the only game in town."
Sam Blake covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA