Paramount Network’s first two big event series, “Waco” and “Yellowstone,” take place in the center of the country — and that’s not by accident. The newly rebranded channel, which flipped from its longtime identity as Spike today, may now sport the name of a big Hollywood studio. But its roots still lie in Nashville.
That’s what helped fuel a desire to make Paramount a premium basic cable network that perhaps appeals as much to the middle of the country as the coasts, which network president Kevin Kay said he hoped might set it apart from established competitors like FX and AMC. “Waco,” which premieres Jan. 24, stars Michael Shannon, Taylor Kitsch, John Leguizamo, Rory Culkin, Melissa Benoist, and Camryn Manheim, and tells the story of the real-life 1993 standoff between cult leader David Koresh and the FBI and ATF.
“Yellowstone,” meanwhile, stars Kevin Costner as the nation’s largest ranch owner. The 10-episode series is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”).
“You look at something like ‘Waco,’ ‘Yellowstone,’ ‘Heathers,’ or ‘American Woman,’ any of these [new] shows, and they’re not as dark as what FX does,” Kay said. “They own that, they’re so good at it. I think what we look at the strength of where our [cable operator] affiliates are, [and we have] a lot of strength in the South and the Midwest. Not necessarily as much a New York or L.A. [base]. From a programming standpoint a lot of other networks have that New York/L.A. thing covered. When we look at something like ‘Yellowstone,’ which takes place in Montana and Utah, that feels like big blue sky, very different, something you haven’t seen on TV in a long time. Not to say it isn’t a dark show, but it’s a little brighter and a bit more blue sky than some of the things that are on premium cable TV now.”
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That Midwest/South appeal comes from the network’s DNA. Paramount Network began back in 1983 as The Nashville Network, a country-flavored channel that featured music, NASCAR racing, cooking shows and other entertainment programming — much of it based from Opryland USA. But by the late 1990s, Viacom had taken oversight of the network, and it had morphed into the broader “TNN” — and then, since it fit the acronym, “The National Network.”
Some of that rural programming remained — until 2003, when TNN was relaunched as Spike TV, a male-oriented channel featuring testosterone-centric fare like “Ultimate Fighter.” But at the turn of the decade, Spike reoriented its focus to more reality programming, and in recent years had become more of a general entertainment cable network, with shows like “Lip Sync Battle” and even scripted series like “Tut” and “The Mist.”
But because Spike was a product of The Nashville Network, it continued to perform best in what Kay calls “the ‘Villes” — shorthand for towns in the South and Midwest, inspired by Nashville, Louisville, Asheville, Fayetteville and so many others.
“We still are big in the ‘Villes,” he said. “When you look at audience demographics, you’re looking at the geography and the psychographic of it. I think we have to think about that.”
That’s why, for example, Paramount Network will still be running Spike fare such as “Ink Master,” “Bar Rescue,” “Cops,” and Bellator mixed martial arts. Still, as part of its launch campaign to kick off Paramount, the company did something unusual: It trashed Spike on social media. Hard. To jokingly end the channel’s 15-year run, a supposed “rogue” social director started posting angry tirades about Spike, and how pissed he was that it was shutting down, on Twitter. That was followed by a Facebook video of the Spike logo being destroyed.
“To be honest, I spent 14 years building Spike, so I had a lot of ambivalent feelings about that campaign,” Kay admitted. “But the real reason we did it is we really need the audience to understand that Spike is going away and Paramount Network is going to be there in its place. I thought that would get a lot of attention, people who write about it, will hopefully understand the humor behind it. Let’s make sure we make some noise and let people know. Spike will live on, regardless of that campaign. There’s a tremendous library of Spike content.”
Paramount Network was born out of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish’s desire for the company to have a flagship scripted network. So many of Viacom’s channels had been dabbling in scripted, including MTV, VH1, CMT, TV Land and Spike, that the company found it inefficient.
“We realized was we were each trying to launch one show a year and we were each spending a fortune to do it,” Kay said. “And then you’d put 10 episodes on the air and a year later you’d have to spend the same amount in order to get the people who watch that programming to come back.”
Spike was chosen because of factors such as its high-definition penetration, which is nearly 100 percent, and the agreements it had in place with cable and satellite operators. Several projects in the works at other networks — notably, “Heathers” and “American Woman” at TV Land – were shifted to Paramount.
“I watched the ‘Heather’s pilot and said to myself, that’s an amazing show, I can’t even imagine how it would work with the TV Land audience. They’re into sitcoms; they’re a little bit older. They’re used to cleaner content,” Kay said. “American Woman” was shifted over because of its star quotient in leads Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari.
Another show, MTV’s “The Shannara Chronicles,” moved to Spike and presumably was to have been a part of the Paramount lineup — until it was canceled this week.
“It’s about the ratings,” Kay said. “We moved it over to Spike because the strength of the show’s audience was older guys, and we felt it had potential there. But we couldn’t get them to watch.”
Kay knows he faces some brand confusion, as Paramount is known as a movie studio, not a TV network. That’s why part of the network’s early campaign includes the tagline “Beyond Movies.” But an initial idea to abbreviate the network “PN” or “TPN” was nixed because it sounded too much like the defunct UPN.
“There are so many positives about the Paramount brand,” he said. “They think about that library — ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Mission Impossible,’ ‘Transformers.’ The great franchises. It’s pretty wide open, it’s not like they have a specific kind of entertainment on their minds.”
One brand that Paramount did have to distance itself from was The Weinstein Co., which was a producer on both “Waco” and “Yellowstone.” The company’s name won’t appear at all on those shows, although once new owners take over that production company, its new name might pop up.
“The negatives outweighed any positives there,” Kay said. “None of us wanted to be associated with what went on there. The shows speak for themselves and don’t need the Weinstein name. I’m not sure it was going to be a giant part of our marketing anyway.”
Kay admits it’s a bit unusual to be behind such a major linear channel launch in 2018, with the digital revolution underway: “We’re living in a world where cable networks are actually shutting down,” he notes. The challenge now is twofold: “Making sure we have the right amount of marketing to get the audiences to come,” and competing for talent in a crowded marketplace. “There are so many scripted shows, and so many places that the talent can go work, and then people are writing extraordinary checks for the talent… We have to figure out in the Paramount Network world how to bring the big screen experience to the small screen.”