Will a name change save Viacom?

Earlier this year, Viacom announced that the Spike channel would be rebranded as “The Paramount Network.” This is of course, not to be confused with the “United Paramount Network” or UPN, a broadcast network from the 1980s that merged and evolved into being the CW network of today.

This isn’t the first rebranding for Spike; Originally known as The Nashville Network and then simply TNN, it was known for a while as Spike TV before branding itself as Spike a few years ago. While TNN was largely centered around the traditional southern lifestyle, Spike was unapologetically frat-boy centered. The network’s latest success, Lip Sync Battle has broader appeal, and Viacom hopes it will lead to the new Paramount Network gaining more viewers across the board.

Or at least, not losing them.

Spike was a “success” in the last year as the third-most viewed Viacom network after MTV and VH1, with viewership “only” down 10% year-over-year. Only in 2017 could we define success as “you barely dropped double digits.” But that’s the world of basic-cable television today, with more people turning to streaming and premium alternatives. Basic, mindless TV seems to be suffering on many fronts.

According to sources, the Paramount Network will be yet another of those ill-defined channels that tries to appeal to everyone with smarter, higher-end programming. A FierceCable article says,

Paramount Network will have “Waco,” starring Michael Shannon, which was already being developed by Spike, and “American Woman” starring Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, which is being developed by TV Land. Paramount will also have the Kevin Costner-starring drama “Yellowstone” and a six-part docu-series about Trayvon Martin, produced by Jay Z and the Weinstein Company.

I’ve got some very mixed feelings about this.

First of all I think it’s great when a less-smart channel tries to be a more-smart channel. TV Land has had great success in recent years, starting with a 100% rerun-based slate and evolving to original content that feels like reruns, to higher-end original programming like Younger that hits the same demographic but does so more intelligently. Now, you’re seeing this long-term arc for TNN/Spike/Paramount Network toward sharper and smarter original programming as well. The network which once proudly featured “Stripperella” is actually going for some seriously good stuff. That’s awesome.

On the other hand, it strikes me that with all these other channels, from AMC to Starz and everything in between focusing on the same kind of content, the essential promise of pay-TV is going by the wayside. The idea of having 500 channels was that no matter who you were, you would find something to watch. Now it seems that if you don’t want to watch dark, violent drama or shows about people renovating homes, you may as well turn off the TV. Sometimes it’s ok to be different, sometimes it’s ok to have a niche.

The problem is, with the overall viewing audience shrinking, niches don’t pay like they once did. And I don’t know how to fix that, other than scrapping all these networks completely. If you think about it, you probably tune in to each of those channels for one or two shows, whether it’s Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones. The other 23 hours of the day, the other 167 hours of the week, you’re doing something else. So far, nothing the networks have done has gained back the loyalty that viewers once had.

Personally I think that in the end Viacom is simply going to have to deal with the consequences of their decisions. They had a killer team on Comedy Central, a network that now struggles to keep itself alive. MTV and the other music channels evolved, went up and down, and while they’re on the top of the Viacom heap, it’s a rapidly shrinking heap. Kids are watching less TV, so Nickelodeon and that group of channels seem less relevant. Right now, Viacom execs are still piling praise on Kevin Kay (one of their presidents) and his team for “successfully redefining” their brand.

All I know is, if I had $1,000 and my financial advisor “only” lost $100 of it, I’m not sure I’d call it a “successful redefining.” If that’s the best you can do, so be it, but it’s anything but successful. Let’s hope The Paramount Network succeeds, but if all they are doing is copying other generic channels with one or two high-end shows, they’ll probably wish for the days when they “only” lost 10% of their market.