So long ViacomCBS, we hardly knew ye.
Less than three years after re-merging, ViacomCBS has ditched the branding to fly under the flag of Paramount Global. This, combined with a pledge to invest more than US$6 billion in content by 2024 has seen the company capture headlines all around the world as a major statement of intent for the future.
The news of both the rebrand and the increased content spend was not met particularly warmly by investors. Following the announcement, and the company’s less-than-stellar quarterly results, Paramount’s share price slid by 20%. There is evidently concern that the aggressive approach may not result in the the positive gains that Paramount’s executive board hopes for.
It is clear that more than being a simple change of name, the rebrand represents a final throw of the dice from the Bob Bakish-led company to establish itself as a major player in the streaming landscape and to save its status as one of the top names in US media.
A necessary gamble?
Paramount+, which launched as a relative latecomer in mid 2021, has amassed 32.8 million subscribers. This is an impressive figure, but it is some way behind WarnerMedia’s HBO Max – which last month announced that it had added 13.1 million subscribers in 2021 to reach a base of 73.8 million globally – and Disney+ which started 2022 with a global total of 129.8 million subscribers.
These competitors are obviously more established, having spent longer on the market and having a wider international reach. Paramount+ has a lot of catching up to do, and the company will hope that its increased content spend will help it to achieve this.
While Paramount+ has performed solidly to date, its first real test will be on the launch of its adaptation of the video game franchise Halo. Such an adaptation has been in production hell for almost two decades, with the rights bouncing around from distributor to distributor and high-profile Hollywood creators Peter Jackson, Alex Garland and Neill Blomkamp all being associated with the project at one stage. The release of the Halo series, which had a pre-pandemic production cost of US$41 million before filming resumed in early 2021, will demonstrate whether the streamer has done enough to attract a mainstream audience to a platform which has not really had an original hit to date.
In fairness, it took HBO Max a while to get going as well, between technical hitches, carriage disputes and a lack of compelling originals. But the ace up HBO Max’s sleeve has been the prestige of shows like Succession and its 2021 move to release Warner Bros.’s theatrical movies day-and-date on the streamer. In 2022, HBO Max can rely on its streaming originals such as the James Gunn-helmed superhero spin-off Peacemaker and zeitgeist-grabbing Euphoria.
Paramount+ has not gone down that route, and the company is still focused on bringing films like the upcoming Mission Impossible sequel to cinemas as a priority. This is a decision that may be revisited should the company fail to reach its new target of 100 million subscribers by the end of 2024.
The outward noises from Paramount are overwhelmingly positive, such as from Naveen Chopra, EVP and CFO, who told investors this week: “In just one year, Paramount+ has outperformed all expectations. Our powerful content, marketing and distribution engines drove explosive growth as further proof of our ability to establish a sustainable, large scale streaming business with a differentiated global playbook.”
Analyst opinions differ on how the streamer will perform going forward.
Simon Murray of Digital TV research has boldly predicted that Paramount+ will become the US’s third-largest SVOD with 52.2 million subscribers by 2027, behind only Netflix (69.1 million subscribers) and Hulu (53.8 million). Amazon Prime is set to top 100 million subscribers, but its all-encompassing offer of shipping, streaming and other perks makes it hard to compare. Interestingly, the analyst expects Paramount to overtake Disney+ (51.3 million) and HBO Max (51 million) within five years.
However by contrast, MoffettNathanson analyst Robert Fishman has been less bullish on the streaming push and rebrand. In a note, he said that Paramount’s losses will continue to increase until 2023, writing: “Despite the big announcement of ViacomCBS changing its name to Paramount … we are left with a similar question as we had last year: will the company be able to grow EBITA and FCF again to match prior levels?”
BofA analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich meanwhile has downgraded the stock to ‘neutral’, cooling on the company as a potential acquisition target.
It’s also worth noting that Paramount’s streaming business does not entirely live or die on the success of Paramount+, even if it is the flagship product. The company also operates SVODs including Showtime and BET+, while it has quietly built up an AVOD leader in Pluto TV.
Ultimately, Paramount in 2022 is playing catch-up to its peers in the SVOD space. Opinions differ on whether that will be achieved, but the company is sparing no expense in attempting to realise its streaming ambitions.