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Paramount+: too little, too late?
15 months on from its US launch, Paramount’s SVOD service finally arrived in the UK this week.
Adopting the + naming convention popularised by Apple & Disney, Paramount+ is priced at £6.99 a month (or £69.90 a year) - more expensive than the ‘boutique’ SVODs but cheaper than the SVOD behemoths (Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video).
Interestingly, Sky has brokered a deal morphing its Paramount movie licensing deal into free availability of Paramount+ for Sky Cinema subscribers. A Paramount+ account is still required which appears to be causing some teething troubles (a message on the Sky Help site says “We’re seeing an amazing response to adding Paramount+ at no extra cost to Sky Cinema, and are aware you may get an error message when trying to sign-up”).
Also notable is the arrangement Paramount have agreed with Apple, which looks to be full support for Apple ID (the only option given under ‘Sign In with Partner’) and content syndication into Apple’s TV app via a Channel on iOS and tvOS (rather than deep-linking into the Paramount+ app) in return for some healthy prominence/promotion in the Apple TV UI.
Paramount+ is also available as an Amazon Channel, which feels like an odd decision when the Paramount+ OTT app is available on Fire TV devices and they’ll have to give Amazon a cut of the Channel subscription revenues.
Availability of Paramount+ on Smart TVs is currently limited to Samsung, Android TV and Fire TV sets, forcing many non-Sky customers to rely on Chromecast or a streaming stick to get Paramount+ on the big screen (side note: the popularity of Apple TV, Fire TV and Roku devices amongst North American cord-cutters seems to lead a lot of US streaming companies to underestimate the importance of availability on smart TVs in the UK market).
The UI borrows most heavily from Disney+, with a rail of brands underneath a rotating hero carousel leading to branded areas for P+ Originals & Exclusives (catchy!), Showtime, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr & Smithsonian. However, the presentation of these branded areas is decidedly underwhelming, comprised of a single alphabetised page/rail.
Another curious design decision is the use of portrait and landscape images, with the Home, Shows, Movies & Search all exclusively using portrait images (perhaps a consequence of limited images for Paramount’s legacy film catalogue) and Brands exclusively using landscape images (but only on the Smart TV version).
Most of the functionality you’d expect from a streaming service in 2022 is present and correct: profiles, my list, autoplay, parental controls, subtitles, kids mode, character avatars, mobile downloads. However, it’s more buggy than you might expect from a service which has been live in another territory for over a year (e.g. frequent sign-outs, the Series tab returns an error on the iOS app).
So, what of the content offer? Beyond the sort of film back catalogue you’d expect from a Hollywood studio (which feels like less of a differentiator than it once did) and a modest children’s catalogue of mostly non-exclusive titles (e.g. Peppa Pig, SpongeBob SquarePants, PAW Patrol), there’s an Apple TV+ size (i.e. small) collection of new and exclusive dramas.
Recent Star Trek series, Discovery and Strange New Worlds, are one of the biggest exclusive carrots, with the latter featuring prominently in marketing and on-product. However, one franchise does not a sticky SVOD service make and the other hero content is less established.
Halo is a new series based on the hit video game, although the audience reaction has been mixed (Rotten Tomatoes audience score = 53%). Super Pumped is an America Crime Story-style anthology drama with Uber the first subject matter and Joseph Gordon-Levitt the talent draw (RT audience score = 58%). The First Lady is another anthology drama with some serious acting talent in the form of Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer & Gillian Anderson but also has a mediocre Rotten Tomatoes audience score (57%).
The Man Who Fell To Earth, an 8 episode sequel to the 1976 David Bowie film, has had a better reception (RT audience score = 79%), as has The Offer, which dramatises producer Al Ruddy’s experience of making of The Godfather (RT audience score = 97%) and crime thriller Mayor of Kingstown (RT audience score = 87%), which has already been renewed for a second season.
Kevin Costner’s neo-Western Yellowstone, which is now 4 seasons in with a 5th due in the autumn, is one of the few established exclusives, which has been equally well received by audiences and critics (RT audience and critics’ score both 83%) and has now spawned a prequel/origin story in the shape of 1883.
Whether any of these titles can achieve the subscription-justifying status of some of Apple’s standout shows (e.g. Ted Lasso, Severance) remains to be seen. Maintaining a pipeline of high-end drama is an expensive business and Paramount can’t afford to treat Paramount+ as a loss leader in the way Apple can with Apple TV+.
Paramount looks to be trying to mitigate the ‘binge then cancel’ risk that comes with the boxset release model by dropping new episodes weekly where it can (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Halo and Super Pumped are all releasing every Wednesday).
However, the current dearth of must-see series, coupled with a shortage of the sort of easy-watching evergreen content that quietly helped sustain Netflix’s growth (e.g. Friends, The Big Bang Theory) makes Paramount+ a tough monthly commitment for non-Trekkies. South Park is one of just six titles in the Comedy Central section.
Whilst Mission: Impossible 7 and A Quiet Place Part II promise to deliver a spike in the autumn, dropping 45 days after the theatrical release rather than simultaneously will reduce the size of that spike and may be treated by viewers as more of a one-off £6.99 pay-per-view than the start of an ongoing subscription.
Paramount+ is currently falling between stools - not genre-focused or cheap in the way Hayu and Discovery+ are and not broad and deep in the way Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video are (and producing or acquiring your way to a bigger catalogue in 2022 is a lot harder than it was a decade ago).
Right now, Paramount+ looks destined to be an also-ran in the streaming wars; not making the cut for enough people deciding which 2 or 3 SVOD services are worth paying for each month.