Kent Alterman Wants "Broad Appeal But Not Broadcast" for Paramount Network 2.0

Kent Alterman -Getty-H 2019
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Kent Alterman has been handed a challenging task: reinvent Paramount Network a year after it was rebranded from Spike TV.

Comedy Central president Alterman added oversight of Paramount Network to his duties in October when he was tapped to replace Kevin Kay at the helm of the Viacom-owned cable network. To hear the executive tell it, his mandate from Viacom CEO Bob Bakish is simple: "Make it work."

To do so, Alterman is using Kevin Costner vehicle Yellowstone as the prime example of the type of content he's looking for to build up Paramount Network. The family drama from Taylor Sheridan was the first scripted original developed (by Kay) specifically for Paramount Network. The character-driven drama is but one of three scripted originals currently in the works at Paramount Network, joining Darren Star's Emily in Paris and newly ordered 68 Whiskey.

While Alterman prefers to not look back at Paramount Network's largely unsuccessful first year, he does admit that the strategy of pulling original series from other Viacom brands — namely the since-canceled TV Land imports American Woman, Nobodies and Heathers — was a bad idea. And he's not wrong: looking back at Paramount Network's inaugural slate, Yellowstone is the lone scripted series to return for a second season.

Below, Alterman opens up about how he's approaching Paramount Network 2.0, his approach to blockbuster overall deals and why Spike's unscripted holdovers are a big part of what's working.

You've been at the helm of Paramount Network now for six months. What's the mandate from Bob Bakish?

The mandate is to make it work. What we've been trying to do is have a very thoughtful, holistic approach. The reason we're having this conversation now and not five and not five and a half months ago is what did I know then? We've had the benefit of seeing of what worked out of the gate in the launch of Paramount Network and what didn't work. Then we've also given ourselves this period of time to try to approach everything in a thoughtful, strategic and holistic way and that includes a lot of audience research and so on. The way we've been approaching it is, on the very macro level, we look at the world we're living in and that's what we're responding to.

If you think about the name — Paramount Network — the implication is movies and that's something we're really leaning into. The great movie experiences are when we go to the theater and we're transported into another time and place and characters and you are able to relieve yourself of your own preoccupations. It's satisfying, especially when it's deep, rich, emotional storytelling with compelling characters. In a way, what we're really looking to do at Paramount Network is to tap into that and have very relatable worlds, stories and characters. It's broad appeal but not broadcast sensibility. We want to go deeper into more complicated characters and stories that explore all of the complexities, hypocrisies and challenges of what it is to be human. That is tapping into the 100-year legacy of powerful storytelling at Paramount and what that name implies. We want our stuff to be cinematic, and to have complex characters and relationships. The best example of that out of the gate is Yellowstone. It was biggest new launch in cable last year with over 5 million viewers. It's emblematic of what we're aiming for in that it it's visually cinematic and has cinematic storytelling; it has a movie star — Kevin Costner — and it's a great family dynamic that can lead itself into ongoing relationships and stories. We're excited to build off of that. The things that worked were things that were developed for Paramount Network — Yellowstone and Waco [the latter was developed for Spike]. Another thing that unites those and is a good suggestion of how we're aiming in the future is that the setting is a really important facet. When you present a world that's very specific — and it's not New York or L.A. — that transports you into another place that's relatable. Both Yellowstone and Waco have that and a lot of the new stuff that we're doing has that. 

Kevin Kay wanted six scripted shows on the air within the first year and then to grow that to eight in the second year. How does your approach to scripted compare?

To build on the success that Kevin Kay initiated. I have deep appreciation for that. Part of the challenges that anyone would have faced in that position was being handcuffed by cobbling together assets that were developed for different brands in order to have a more robust launch of Paramount Network and that was problematic in certain ways. We came in and made some other decisions to change some of the previous decisions. We thought let's give ourselves the runway to try to do it right. Some shows were developed for TV Land and probably didn't make sense [for Paramount Network]. For us, it made more sense to keep Younger on TV Land, where it was an established hit. That was borne out by season five launching to its highest rating in the history of the show. 

You've got Yellowstone as the lone scripted series in 2019, with Emily in Paris slated to potentially join it in 2020 and then newly ordered 68 Whiskey, which would give you three on the air by 2021. Is that the scripted growth goal?

That's right. I'm not making any big proclamation about having eight or 10 a year or anything like that. We want to ramp up to four a year. We have a great base to work from and have other projects in the initial stages that we can't talk about yet that will feed the pipeline in a way that's compelling and hits all the same creative filters. What we've ascertained are what qualities work for us: the setting is important, not being set in L.A. or New York; not being niche or set in dystopian worlds. It's really setting worlds, characters and stories that are much more relatable but also reward a viewer's time and attention with not keeping it on the surface or not being escapist but being transformative and really dive into the rich, complex characters and stories. And a lot of it is we also found that we have achieved gender balance now, which is remarkable considering the roots of Paramount Network was Spike, which was very male. We're much more gender balanced and the stuff that's working and that we're looking to continue promotes co-viewing, which is a valuable component as well.  

How do you plan on competing for talent and scripts in the era of bidding wars between billion-dollar spenders like Netflix, Apple and HBO?

It's a very competitive world right now but everyone has their own taste and sensibility and that's always going to differentiate one place from another — and those places have different resources. One of new things we have in development, for example, goes in the same direction: Coyote. Michelle MacClaren is a formidable force as a director and showrunner and Michael Chiklis is attached as the star. It's a world that's very relatable and of the moment right now. It takes place on the border, he's a border patrol agent who is forced into retirement and as he dives into and gets sucked into the world that he was looking at from a very monolithic point of view, he's gets sucked in in a complex way not just on the U.S. border side and with the U.S. authorities but with the drug cartels in Mexico and the human traffickers in Mexico. It's almost like Breaking Good in a way: he becomes more enlightened and a richer and more evolved character. That satisfies the same itch in a way of what we feel will be satisfying to our audience analogous way to how Yellowstone working. And 68 Whiskey is a very specific world that is relevant to the times we're living in but still has that satisfying escape from the world in a way. It's like a modern-day M*A*S*H that leans on the drama but has comedic elements as well. It's ultimately a very specific place with characters that are relatable and a lot of inter-personal dynamics will drive that series. 

You're picking up a show called Heaven of Hell, a cop drama from Rodes Fishburne with Spectrum Originals having first window. Tell us about the show and the business model there.

Rodes wrote a pilot and second episode script that are so rich and compelling. It's another example where it goes into a specific world — a small-town in Mississippi — and it explores all these relationships of family and characters in the community in a rich, complex and surprising way that's relatable. It's got a broad sensibility but not that broadcast sensibility. It can go into some complex and dark places in way that's satisfying. He's a master storyteller and a fantastic writer. We're excited about the partnership with Charter and we're also doing it in partnership with Paramount TV. 

In this era where ownership is vital, how much have you been having conversations about better integrating with Paramount Pictures and Paramount TV?

We've been spending a lot of time and energy connecting with all the different entities — including Paramount Channels around the world. We're looking forward to having some announcements where we can really utilize a lot of that resource to be able to do stuff that fits into what we're aiming to do.

Meaning if you have a big IP, whether it's from the motion picture side of the TV studio, you could spin that off and do a show that airs on Paramount Network or an unscripted behind-the-scenes look at one of the studio's big properties?

Yes, it could be any or all of that. It could be a mix of IP that we could adapt with Paramount TV that comes from Paramount Pictures. Or it could be new IP that we develop together but where we have the heft of all that resource between us, the studio and Paramount Channels around the world.

Looking back on the past year of Paramount Network, what would you have done differently? Paramount Network canceled a lot of its TV Land, MTV and Spike imports — American Woman, Nobodies, Heathers, The Mist, Shannara Chronicles. Any regrets there?

I tend to not look back; I try to look forward. The main lesson is they were in a position where they had to cobble some assets together of properties that weren't developed for Paramount Network and that's difficult to do. Right now, we're focused on what are we developing for Paramount Network.

What kind of a mix of unscripted will you have? Those holdovers from Spike are still chugging along.

Thank the gods that Bar Rescue and Ink Master are working really well. A lot of the principals of what works for about shows also really resonates with a lot of the things that we're looking at for scripted: being set in very specific places that are not New York or L.A. and very dramatic, inter-personal relationships with strong figures in the middle. It's no accident they're working for Paramount Network. We'll have more to say about unscripted in the coming weeks.

Will Paramount Network compete for top talent and overall deals? There were talks with Taylor Sheridan about an overall deal during the Kevin Kay regime. Is that still on the table?

I don't think we have luxury of throwing other-worldly money at people. But it remains to be seen. We've been doing more overalls with Comedy Central and that's been tapping into the emerging talent that we've been nurturing. We have an overall with Darren Star on the TV side. How we address it on Paramount Network remains to be seen. We're still working with Taylor on Yellowstone but we're not talking about an overall deal.

What's the status of anthology Accused, which is in development?

Accused is still in development. David Shore is very involved. It's an anthology and based on British format and it's really compelling. Each week, someone is faced with a court case and is coming to court to find out if they're guilty or not guilty. Each episode is self-contained. We're still working on that. And on the scripted side, we'll have more news to share after our unscripted announcements.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.