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Growing Pains: The Challenge of Launching a Prestige Network in 2018

Much has been made of how individual TV shows struggle to break through in this crowded era of entertainment. But what about the new networks?

Desus and Mero, Elisabeth Moss in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and Taylor Kitsch in ‘Waco’ Paramount/Hulu/Viceland/Ringer illustration

When the Paramount Network made its debut earlier this year, the fledgling channel appeared to be cribbing from a very familiar playbook. The rebranded Spike TV, a property of Viacom’s entertainment megalith, announced itself in January with Waco, a high-profile, superbly cast miniseries drawn from real-life events. Waco was but the opening salvo in a barrage of projects perfectly suited to grab headlines: an adaptation of the pitch-black ’80s teen comedy Heathers; Yellowstone, the first foray into television by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan; a First Wives Club update by the cowriter of Girls Trip. With Viacom’s considerable weight and a legacy name behind it, Paramount is attempting to muscle its way into TV’s more highbrow echelons.

More than five months later, the Paramount Network’s admittedly lofty dreams have yet to become reality. Waco was a ratings success, averaging over a million viewers an episode, but after mixed reviews, it never acquired the intangible patina of word-of-mouth buzz. After the Parkland shooting, the premiere of Heathers’ 10-episode season (already shot, edited, and released to critics in advance) was delayed due to a midseason episode centered on gun violence; the show was scrapped entirely earlier this month. (Viacom will shop the show to other networks, but Heathers will not air on Paramount.) American Woman, a comedy based on the childhood of Real Housewife Kyle Richards originally developed for TV Land, is more forgettable summer comedy than reliable brand-builder.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable, and there are bright spots, too: The Kevin Costner–fronted Yellowstone premiered last week to an impressive 4.8 million viewers, including reruns and DVR viewings, in the three days following its release. The success doesn’t come as a complete surprise: A modern Western in the Justified vein set in Montana and starring a white man in his 60s, Yellowstone—like the government-hostile Waco—is geared toward an older, more conservative, and more rural (or at least nature-romanticizing) viewership, which happens to overlap neatly with the demographics who still watch TV the old-fashioned way. Paramount also has a promising development slate: Potential series include a legal episodic anthology from House and The Good Doctor’s David Shore; a sketch comedy show targeted at Latino millennials set in a fictional neighborhood called Browntown; and a missing-person thriller centered on a celebrity journalist. As long as 2018 can feel, Paramount is still less than six months old. It takes much longer for a full lineup to cement into place—and in the meantime, in an awkward holdover from the Spike TV regime, the network has a cluster of reality hits like Lip Sync Battle and Bar Rescue it can continue to profit from.

Paramount’s first months speak to the challenges of starting a prestige brand from scratch in the late stages of Peak TV—a battle the Paramount Network is joined in by other cable channels, like Viceland, and more unorthodox streaming services, like Amazon and Hulu. The start-up costs of a prestige brand include very literal costs of hiring movie stars, shooting scenic mountain vistas, and poaching HBO’s entire bench of recognizable character actors for a six-week series event. But there’s also the risk of doubling down on building a curated identity while omnibuses like Netflix are working to make the very idea of specificity obsolete. Much has been made of how individual series, whether The Good Fight or Halt and Catch Fire, struggle to break through in this enormously crowded era of entertainment. Could the same issue be facing the networks that air them?

Last week, Twitter-turned-podcast-turned-TV stars Desus and Mero revealed the duo would leave their namesake talk show on Viceland to hatch a weekly series on the more established Showtime. The announcement was widely interpreted as a promotion for the hosts; less discussed was its impact on the platform Desus and Mero are leaving behind.

Launched just more than two years ago, Viceland is the cable television arm of Vice Media, the anarchic, millennial-targeted media company cofounder Shane Smith has propelled over the years into a multinational empire with investments from venture capital firms, Rupert Murdoch, and Disney. Featuring series with proudly provocative names like Slutever and Fuck, That’s Delicious, Smith’s vision for Viceland is extraordinarily ambitious: luring advertisers’ coveted under-35s—a demographic awash in cord-cutters and cord-never-havers—back to traditional, linear TV.

According to a recent New York story frankly titled “A Company Built on a Bluff,” Viceland averaged just 103,000 prime-time viewers in the first quarter of 2018, making it the 83rd-most-watched cable channel in the country. In January, Canadian distributor Rogers Media pulled out of its partnership with Vice entirely, putting at least a temporary end to Viceland’s Canada iteration. (In the states, Viceland operates under the auspices of A&E Networks, which owns a 15 percent stake of Vice Media as a whole.) Desus & Mero was Viceland’s most unambiguous success story, a lo-fi banter session that leveraged the unpolished, underdog vibe of a brand-new network into a cornerstone of its appeal as a sort of anti–Tonight Show. The numbers weren’t exactly robust, clustering in the low six figures—roughly on par with Viceland’s as a whole. But the show acquired a real cultural footprint, staging live shows to rapturous crowds of “Bodegahive” members and gradually upping the star power of its guests; both Jimmy Fallon and Melissa McCarthy have stopped by this year. And now, Desus and Mero are moving on, big fish swimming their way to a bigger pond.

Viceland has the financing and high stakes for its parent company to continue persevering. Vice Media has a multibillion-dollar valuation used to garner massive infusions of capital from investors; Viceland, as Reeves Wiedeman wrote in the New York story, represents a chance at “a more traditional revenue stream and Vice’s entry into the media big leagues,” creating both the incentive and the means to keep trying until something sticks. Still, attempting to build a network brand from scratch has proved an uphill climb, one exacerbated by Viceland’s target demographic but not unique to it.

Even players seemingly favored by a cultural economy increasingly weighted toward streaming aren’t immune to existential questions about how to sell themselves. One senses such a struggle in the efforts of digital newcomers like Amazon and Hulu, two streaming contenders who earned awards victories and acclaim early on with Transparent and The Handmaid’s Tale, but have yet to replicate those series’ successes on a larger scale. Both companies have extenuating circumstances that set them apart from conventional networks and Netflix, their largest competitor: Amazon’s original series are but one wing of a multibillion-dollar e-commerce enterprise; Hulu is jointly owned by three separate broadcast networks and relies as much on its back catalog of series like ER and Daria as its original series to draw subscribers.

Still, there’s a palpable sense of searching in the platforms’ current trajectories. After a muddled early strategy that included not one, but two separate series based on the work and lore of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Amazon announced its intention to stop “programming to Silver Lake,” an adjustment that heralded the cancellation of Jill Soloway’s Transparent follow-up I Love Dick, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, and the charming-if-puzzling Golden Globe favorite Mozart in the Jungle. The Everything Store has, in theory, pivoted away from prestige entirely in favor of global appeal, buying the rights to Lord of the Rings as part of a Jeff Bezos–mandated search for the next Game of Thrones. Yet Amazon also continues to invest in more rarefied enterprises like an adaptation of the hefty, Man Booker–winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, directed by Melina Matsoukas and executive produced by Jill Soloway. (Former head of Amazon Studios Roy Price also resigned last year over allegations of sexual harassment, an additional source of instability.)

Meanwhile, Hulu doubled down on Handmaid’s by upping the episode order from 10 to 13 in Season 2. Upon its return, however, Handmaid’s has run into storytelling challenges—and Hulu has yet to unveil another series that can bolster its flagship, with prospective peers like The Looming Tower doing more to simplify its vaunted source material than elevate it. Besides Handmaid’s, Hulu’s only recurring dramas are Harlots, a British co-production about an 18th-century brothel, and the Marvel teen ensemble Runaways; once Casual concludes later this summer, the streaming network’s comedy ranks will be thinned down to Josh Hutcherson’s sci-fi Future Man, Sarah Silverman’s unscripted I Love You, America, and teen sitcom All Night.

Both Hulu and Amazon have amply stocked pipelines: Hulu will soon add to Reese Witherspoon’s growing TV portfolio with a Little Fires Everywhere adaptation costarring Kerry Washington. The service also landed George Clooney’s Catch-22, and the premiere of Stephen King composite Castle Rock is mere weeks away. At Amazon, Price has since been replaced by NBC alumna Jennifer Salke, whose first moves included signing first-look deals with Nicole Kidman and Game of Thrones executive producer Vince Gerardis. Other marquee projects include Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs, Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, and a romantic anthology sourced from The New York Times’ popular Modern Love column.

Neither company is attempting to replicate the all-things-to-all-people model being pioneered by Netflix, the undisputed player to beat in streaming. (“We’re not going to be in that kind of volume game,” Salke told Deadline earlier this month.) Still, all three are playing different strategies in the same game—entrenching themselves in the still-new world of streaming—with Netflix in the current lead, a microcosm of the catch-up currently being attempted in other corners of the industry. Even well-funded technology companies haven’t yet managed to buy their way to creative consistency; no wonder brand-new cable channels haven’t either.

In theory, there’s never been a better time to try to get in on the TV gold rush, which is why everyone from movie stars to former presidents are doing it. In practice, there are countless structural obstacles between setting out to be a home for quality and actually becoming one. There may be more resources to go around than there used to be, but entertainment is as Darwinian as ever.