Viacom CBS Streaming Exec on How to Navigate Massive Paramount+ Content Library

“Building a product that is going to serve all of America — and not just be a media darling on either coast — is critically important,” says Tom Ryan, who was photographed March 1 at his home in Los Angeles.
Photographed by Damon Casarez

“Building a product that is going to serve all of America — and not just be a media darling on either coast — is critically important,” says Tom Ryan, who was photographed March 1 at his home in Los Angeles.

Tom Ryan talks to The Hollywood Reporter about licensing shows to a rival platform and why it's smart to be a contrarian in this business.

On the surface, there seems to be little connecting Tom Ryan's current role supervising ViacomCBS' streaming strategy with his past stints as chief music officer at CD compilation startup Cductive or CEO of graphic T-shirt retailer Threadless. But the New York native says each job has given him an opportunity to curate a personalized experience for his customers. "I am very interested, borderline obsessed, with this concept of programming to people to make it easier for them to find the things that they want," Ryan says. "The internet is such a powerful medium, but it becomes paralyzing for a lot of people because they don't know where to look."

Ryan, 51, and his team have their work cut out for them, helping viewers sort through the massive programming catalog on Paramount+, the subscription streaming service ViacomCBS launched March 4 with more than 30,000 episodes of television. The company also is lining up 2,500 library films and has plans for an expansive slate of originals that includes a Frasier revival and a Yellowstone prequel. (Disney+ launched with 7,500 episodes and 500 movies.) Ryan assumed oversight of the venture — a revamped and supercharged version of 6-year-old CBS All Access — in October after selling his previous startup, ad-supported streamer Pluto TV, to Viacom for $340 million in 2019. He says that running both Pluto TV, which offers themed streaming channels that mimic the live TV experience, and Paramount+ can help "make the one-plus-one of free and pay streaming equal three."

A few days ahead of the Paramount+ launch, the married father of three took a break from "choreographing" the rollout from his Hollywood Hills home for a virtual check-in with THR about ViacomCBS' streaming ambitions.

What experiences from running Pluto TV have you applied to your new role at ViacomCBS?

The power of contrarian insights is equally applicable to businesses that are being launched by larger companies. With Pluto, we were linear in the age of on-demand, free in the age of paid subscription, and supported by ads when folks said that ads were going away. There's a lot we can do with Paramount+ that is born of some of those insights and also born of that philosophy. There are some big streamers out there, but we need to be thinking about what we can do that hasn't been done — even if it might seem contrarian — that will allow us to be winners.

Why did it make sense for ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish to put you in charge of both the subscription and free, ad-supported streaming businesses?

As Bob has said, we have a unique streaming strategy in the market in that we see the streaming world evolving in a way that harkens back to how traditional TV has been built over the years, where you've got free, pay and premium. Pluto is our main player in the free space, Paramount+ in the broad pay space and, on the premium side, we've got Showtime, BET+, et cetera. We're working really hard on all the different ways that we can leverage the services we have to create a funnel to upsell from fee to pay and, for those who churn from pay, to keep in our free ecosystem [with Pluto TV].

How does launching on the back of legacy streamer CBS All Access help Paramount+?

The team that I've inherited is extremely talented. We've got support from all divisions of the company, so this is a top priority. Everyone is aligned in making it successful, and we have a running start. We announced 30 million global subscribers across our paid streaming services, so we're not starting from zero here. All of that, I feel, is really powerful. CBS All Access was very much a CBS product, so the opportunity for us now is to go much, much bigger than we've been able to do historically.

How will you introduce existing CBS All Access customers to a new brand?

It's going to take some time and effort for consumers to digest the evolution. But I don't think it's that hard to do, between what we can do in terms of direct messaging and messaging via our partners and messaging broadly as you've seen from the Super Bowl and everything we're doing on digital and TV and social. Consumers will get it, but there's a bit of an education process.

Paramount+ won't have Yellowstone, which is streaming on NBCUniversal's Peacock, but it will have its prequel and spinoff. What challenge does that pose?

While true that we don't have Yellowstone, we've got Taylor Sheridan, and I'm confident that all of the new shows we're bringing to Paramount+ are going to be extremely popular. Some of those decisions were made prior to Viacom and CBS merging, so they're historical artifacts. We will still look to license content to certain other streamers where we think that makes sense, and that's not always for financial reasons. If you look at iCarly right now, it's one of the top shows on Netflix. The promotion that it's getting through Netflix is basically educating a whole new group of iCarly fans, including my three children. We'll be bringing the new iCarly to Paramount+. So there are benefits to licensing, but it needs to be done in a thoughtful way. Going forward, we're going to be more focused on putting our best content on Paramount+.

Safe to assume you'll look to take back some of the shows you've licensed elsewhere over time?

Yeah, reclaiming certain content and putting that on Paramount+ is core to the strategy, but it's case by case.

What Paramount+ reboot or spinoff are you most looking forward to?

The new Taylor Sheridan stuff is probably the most exciting for me. He's just a great artist.

How will you implement curation within Paramount+ to help subscribers wade through all the originals and the back catalog?

We've got profiles with machine learning that will get to know you better and provide you with personalized recommendations. There's our brands — from Nickelodeon to Comedy Central to MTV — that really stand for something in each of their respective genres. We're bringing linear, interest-based channels — Pluto-like channels — that allow you to jump into content. And there's a whole variety of other things we've not yet announced that we're working on.

Now that every major media conglomerate has made its bet in streaming, how do you think the next few years will shake out for ViacomCBS?

There's going to be a handful of winners. There's a rising tide that will lift the best boats — not all boats — and I'm confident that we've got the absolutely best boat in free today and that we've got all the makings for one of the best boats in pay.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.