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Navigating new trends in the global content business.

Strategy shifts underscore Paramount importance of distribution  

LONDON SCREENINGS: Licensing boss Lisa Kramer on creating second windows for Paramount+ originals, the growing value of mega-franchises like NCIS and what the strategy to refocus on ‘Hollywood hits’ means for the distribution business.

Lisa Kramer

Many parts of the global content business have been upended over the past five years as all the major US studio groups have ventured into direct-to-consumer (D2C) streaming, but perhaps none more so than the distribution teams that sit within those organisations.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when it appeared the relevance of international television distribution was shrinking. The D2C model – initially premised on the notion that shows produced and financed within a particular studio ecosystem must sit exclusively, in perpetuity, on streaming platforms owned by that same company – was quickly gathering momentum, diminishing the role of content licensing in the process.

However, as Wall Street’s calls for streaming services to turn a profit have grown, the market has done something of a 180-degree turn. Fast forward to February 2024 and licensing is once again seen as a critical revenue-generating engine for studios as they look to claw their way to streaming profitability.

Paramount Global Content Distribution, the licensing arm of US-based media company Paramount Global, is one of the divisions that has been forced to adapt amid the shifting sands of corporate strategy.

Distribution boss Lisa Kramer is quick to point out that selling its shows to third parties has always been on the front burner at Paramount Global. However, she acknowledges that the scope of the company’s licensing efforts has ramped up as its parent company has answered investor calls to prioritise profitability.

In the context of those shifts, Paramount’s TV distribution team is heading into the London TV Screenings 2024 with a strategy that, while not wholly different from a year ago, has certainly evolved.

“Last year, we were very mindful of allocating the Paramount+ originals that would be exclusive for very long periods of time to the Paramount+ service. Now we are taking the opportunity to see how we might create second windows for those originals,” says Kramer, whose title is president of international TV licensing at Paramount Global Content Distribution.

The NCIS franchise has generated around US$8bn

The benefits of licensing are “not simply economic,” she adds, getting to the heart of why licensing is such a valuable way of exposing shows and franchises to the widest audiences possible.

“What we’re finding is that broader exposure of IP helps us to build the value of a show or IP. That it isn’t necessarily going to damage it – in fact it could enhance the longtail capability – so we’re really excited about the second-window aspect.”

At the height of the streaming wars, there was fear among distribution execs across the industry, especially those within large studio groups, that the need to license shows was on a downward trajectory. As market conditions have changed, though, US studio groups and even streamers (with the exception of Netflix) have begun firing up their licensing businesses.

“What we try to say in-house, and now I think many more people are listening to us, is that the reason NCIS or any of these IPs and franchises is so popular is because of our global partners,” says Kramer.

“Because we sold them to multiple buyers, mostly broadcast to start with, and they’ve nurtured and grown those IPs – and we’ve tried to support them all the way – it’s become this virtuous circle where it works for their audiences and it creates global resonance and longtail value that we can use on our owned-and-operated platforms. It is the gift that keeps on giving.”

CBS crime procedural NCIS is one of the crown jewels in the Paramount Global Content Distribution portfolio. According to industry estimates, the franchise has generated around US$8bn since it first launched in 2003, an astonishing total for a property that flew somewhat under the radar during the SVoD originals boom of the ‘Peak TV’ era.

Statistics like this make the rationale much clearer when Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish says the company plans to refocus on “Hollywood hits” as it plots a course to streaming profitability.

The enormous value of long-running, broad shows was thrust back into the industry conversation last year with the sweeping success of NBCUniversal-owned legal drama Suits, which became a surprise hit on Netflix in the US years after it stopped airing on USA Network in 2019.

Poppa’s House stars both Damon Wayans Sr and Jr

The sweeping success of Suits and other mega-franchises like Paramount’s NCIS has made the TV industry pay attention to what distribution execs have always known. “I would never be one to tell you ‘I told you so,’ but we have absolutely been seeing the growing value and recognition of the CBS franchises,” says Kramer.

It’s not an abstract concept, either. The value of the NCIS rights is increasing, she says, noting that the show is a versatile licensing proposition.

“In a given market, you can have certain seasons airing on basic, on co-exclusive, on streaming services and it’s still prominent enough to have a linear broadcast slot. It works for everybody,” she says while also highlighting kids’ properties like Paw Patrol and SpongeBob SquarePants and movie franchises Mission Impossible and Transformers.

Paramount’s London TV Screenings slate is itself an example of the fast-changing rights landscape, with several local-language originals that had initially been greenlit for Paramount+ now shifting to be sold worldwide by Paramount Global Content Distribution.

Among them is Italian series Miss Fallaci, a 1950s-set limited series about iconic journalist Oriana Fallaci, and a pair of German series: anthology crime drama Zeit Verbrechen and political thriller Turmschatten. Kramer’s team would always have been handling sales outside of the shows’ countries of origin, but with the strategic shift they will also now be handling sales of Miss Fallaci in Italy and Zeit Verbrechen and Turmschatten in Germany.

Other key titles on the slate include four-part British thriller Coma, commissioned by Paramount-owned Channel 5 and starring Jason Watkins, and US crime procedural Elsbeth, based on a character from CBS hits The Good Wife and The Good Fight.

Kramer concedes the content pipeline has seen a few “hiccups” due to the dual Hollywood strike last year, which led to the delay of the Matlock reboot starring Kathy Bates and comedy Poppa’s House starring both Damon Wayans Sr and Jr. But once the labour disputes were resolved, the studio moved swiftly to restart development and production, limiting the damage to the content slate.

US crime procedural Elsbeth

“The writers’ rooms were up and running 48 hours after that deal was closed, and it was obviously critical to the production community to get going and they’ve certainly fulfilled on that,” she says. “I would not say the pipeline is without hiccups as everyone gets going, but what I’m sure of is that by summer and fall of 2024, everybody will be back firing on all cylinders, our sales included.”

Other titles coming down the pipes include a modern-day medical drama set in the world of Sherlock Holmes and NCIS prequel drama NCIS: Origins, both of which received series orders from CBS last month.

As the global rollout of Paramount+ has evolved, the distribution team has been involved in securing licensing deals to set up “branded hubs” on partner platforms in territories where Paramount+ is not launching directly, including the Philippines (with Tap Digital Media Ventures), India (JioCinema), Belgium (Streamz) and Greece (Cosmote TV).

“For them, it’s a product offering for subscriber acquisition and retention and so far the market reaction has been terrific, so we’re leaning heavily into that outside of where the Paramount+ footprint is,” says Kramer, acknowledging that the various licensing models are intricate but ultimately beneficial. “It’s complex but we’re managing it,” she says.

As for what the decision to focus on “Hollywood hits” means for the distribution side of the business, Kramer stresses that Paramount Global is not exiting the international originals space entirely, but rather looking to lean into the titles driving the majority of viewership and sales.

“Whereas we might have had a proliferation of international shows in the past, we’re cutting back – but we’re not exiting that zone, to be clear. We will actually be announcing in London and in May some other original shows that we know will generate a lot of buzz. Shows like [period drama] King & Conqueror [starring James Norton and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau].

“So we’re not wholesale exiting that space, but we are doing things more selectively and making way for the giant shows, franchises and new IP that is coming out of the US and has global resonance. It’s a strategic decision to make the most of our strengths.”