Paramount+ enters UK streaming market with ‘as broad as possible’ offering
Paramount+ debuts in the UK on June 22 with offerings ranging from the Star Trek franchise and South Park to a prequel series based on the cult British film Sexy Beast. Ahead of its launch, we sat down with Paramount UK’s chief content officer Ben Frow.
As he prepares to launch the Paramount+ streaming service to UK audiences, Ben Frow points out proudly that it was the late Sumner Redstone, creator of the empire now called Paramount Global, who coined the great mantra of 21st century media: “Content is King.”
Paramount+’s UK offering rolls out this week
The irrepressible Frow, once dubbed by the Royal Television Society as “the passionate TV exec,” is signed up to that doctrine. In a 31-minute discussion, he uses the word “content” 51 times. “The demand for content at the moment is absolutely huge, people aren’t building studios in the UK because content is going out of fashion – content has never been more king,” he says. “We have our founder to thank for that phrase, and I really do believe it all comes back to content.”
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There is a library of 4,000 movies from Paramount, Nickelodeon’s vast output for kids, the CBS archive and free-flowing pipelines of premium shows from Paramount Studios, Viacom International Studios and Showtime. “The breadth of content is huge,” says Frow. Which is good as he is chief content officer for the UK service, although his title seems less important to him than Redstone’s motto. “Content ... what am I? ... Content something-or-other? Whatever, I am in charge of content!”
Essentially, his job is to put together a mix “as broad as possible” that will persuade UK viewers that they need yet another streamer in their lives.
Is the UK streaming marketing at saturation?
In the minds of industry analysts, it’s a tough task. Frow must make Paramount+ fly in the UK at a time when households face a cost-of-living crisis and streaming subscriptions already look close to their peak. When Netflix announced in April that it had lost 200,000 subscribers, streaming instantly lost some of its cachet.
Paramount+ has priced its offering at £6.99 a month (or £69.90 a year), matching the cost of Netflix and undercutting Disney+ (£7.99 a month), which looks to be its biggest rival in terms of direct-to-consumer (DTC) subscriptions.
“The golden rule is basically three streaming packages per household,” says media analyst Alex DeGroote. “Netflix and Amazon Prime tend to be two of the default choices, so these guys would be looking to usurp something like Disney+. I find it hard to see this platform displacing any of the big three.”
According to data analytics company Kantar, US households take an average of 3.7 SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) services. In the UK the figure is much lower at 2.4. Worryingly for the UK sector, 1.51 million SVOD subs were canceled in Q1 2022, up from 1.04 million last quarter. Most customers cited “saving money” as the reason for their decision.
Streaming subs are “already reaching saturation point” in European markets, suggests another media analyst Ian Whittaker. “There has got to be a very good reason why households turn around and say, even though we have rising energy bills, we are going to fork out for another subscription service.” His instinct is that “in European markets I don’t think Paramount necessarily has a strong enough brand to be able to pull in many, many people.”
But the media giant (which changed its name from ViacomCBS in February) has a broad strategic approach. Its streaming service, which began back in 2014 as CBS All Access, launched as Paramount+ last year and has 62 million subscribers in 25 markets as it seeks to build a global footprint. The entry into the UK is an important prelude to a wider push across Europe later this year – but SVOD is only part of the picture.
The company also operates in the AVOD space through its Pluto TV offering and BVOD through its deep roots in legacy television models. Frow, who over the past decade has skilfully programmed the positioning of Channel 5 in the UK television ecosystem and retains responsibility for that, emphasizes the “very important part for linear television to play” in the business’s multi-platform UK future.
He is not concerned by Paramount’s lack of brand recognition in the UK. While “there will be people who don’t know what Paramount is,” many are familiar with the great movie studio, and very quickly “the majority of this country” will come to understand how many famous content entertainment brands exist “under the Paramount+ umbrella.”
Frow, who left Channel 4 to work for the notorious Channel 5 owner Richard Desmond in 2012, admits there is “a lot of competition out there” in the streaming market. But he rejects as “a naive approach” the idea that it would look to attack Disney+ (“it’s not about taking anybody out”) and argues that “streaming is a way of watching content that is not going to go away.”
The relatively calm pre-launch at the company’s UK headquarters in London’s Camden Town is surely a consequence of a deal with Sky that means millions of Sky Cinema customers will receive Paramount+ for free, thus ensuring that the streamer begins life in the UK with substantial reach. “It’s good to know you are not launching from scratch,” says Frow of the partnership. “In an increasingly competitive market, the more hands on deck supporting each other the better.”
Thanks to that Sky customer base, original shows on the new streamer can quickly benefit from word-of-mouth recommendation, which was key to Netflix’s South Korean drama Squid Game becoming a global sensation. Paramount+ has 900 productions under way in 25 locations from Australia to Latin America. Nearly 40 commissions are UK-based, with Frow putting an emphasis on drama and factual shows, which play especially well to British audiences. “We are one of the few territories that has a factual budget because factual is so big in this country.”
UK original content
The Box is a true-crime series from London independent Top Hat based on one of America’s worst serial killers. “It is a much slower detailed story than we would ever do on free-to-air (TV),” says Frow. True crime is one of what he calls the “big four genres” of factual TV, alongside mysteries, profiles and what he terms “aspirational access” shows, such as Curve Media’s Chalet Girls, a behind-the-scenes insight into luxury ski resorts.
In UK dramas, he has prioritized thrillers, notably The Burning Girls (the screen version of CJ Tudor’s tale of the 14-year-old daughter of a country vicar), The Ex-Wife (based on a hit psycho thriller by Jess Ryder) and The Blue, a seven-part adaptation of Lucy Clarke’s crime and sailing novel No Escape. He also has high hopes for the modern romcom Flatshare and the period drama A Gentleman in Moscow, which he describes as “very cerebral” and “super premium.”
High-end drama can attract direct subscriptions. So too can hit US shows such as Halo and The Mayor of Kingstown. Then there is Star Trek, including the latest and 11th series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. “I think it was in black and white when Captain Kirk was in charge, I seem to remember that as a child,” reflects Frow. “The fact that it’s still going tells me that it’s pretty popular. I think for Star Trek fans, Star Trek is a hugely important proposition.”
The crew of the USS Enterprise will have to perform well to match the heavy lifting that Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian has done for Disney+. But Frow argues that Paramount+ is building a streamer for all audience segments. “I can’t think of anyone who is being left out,” he says of an initial offering of 8,000 hours of viewing.
Paramount+ is relatively late to the UK market and launching at a difficult time economically. But Frow has carefully observed the evolution of this market and believes he will benefit from the past successes and failures of his rivals. “There’s enough out there to know what resonates and what presses our customers’ buttons,” he says. “It would be remiss of me to ignore what I know works across my competitors.”
The streaming wars are a long way from done. Let the content decide who sits on the throne.