Kent Alterman Talks Paramount Network’s Focus On Cinematic, Broad-Appeal Series, ‘Younger’ & ‘First Wives Club’ Moves & More

Kent Alterman
Paramount Network

In February 2017, Viacom announced plans to rebrand its once testosterone-heavy Spike channel into  Paramount Network, envisioned as the company’s leading scripted series brand. A limited series that had just been picked up at Spike, Waco, was selected to launch the rebranded network in January 2018. It was soon joined by the first original scripted series ordered for Paramount Network, drama Yellowstone starring Kevin Costner, as well as a slew of series originally developed/launched at sibling TV Land, American Woman, Heathers, Nobodies, Younger and First Wives Club. 

Waco and Yellowstone both did very well, with the latter ranking as 2018’s most-watched new cable series and second across all of cable TV series. The transplants from TV Land did not fare as well: American Woman and Nobodies were canceled, Heathers was shelved, with an edited-down version eventually getting a one-time run on the network. Following that streak, First Wives Club recently was relocated to sibling BET while Younger has returned to TV Land where it had been very successful.

In an interview with Deadline, Kent Alterman, President of Comedy Central, Paramount Network, and TV Land, who added Paramount Network and TV Land to his Comedy Central oversight in October, talks about the programming plans for the year-old network. He also discusses the decisions to move First Wives Club to BET and Younger back to TV Land and touches on the future of original programming on TV Land where Younger is the sole original scripted series. (Fueled by the popularity of classic sitcoms, TV Land just recorded its highest quarterly share among W25-54 in nearly 9 years. )

Paramount Network, which is on a streak of six consecutive months and two quarters of year-over-year share growth, just greenlighted its third homegrown scripted series, dark comedy 68 Whiskey based on Israeli format, about Army medics in Afghanistan. It joins Yellowstone and Darren Star’s upcoming dramedy Emily In Paris starring Lily Collins. Alterman talks about a couple of series in development, including Coyote starring Michael Chiklis and Heaven Of Hell, addresses the future of the Paramount Network’s previously announced dramedy night that Emily In Paris, Younger and First Wives Club were supposed to be part of, speaks about closer cooperation among the three brands he oversees and unscripted strategy. He also reveals whether Heathers could continue. 

DEADLINE:  What is your vision for Paramount Network in terms of style, programming, and volume?

ALTERMAN: What we’ve really tried to do is be very holistic and strategic and thoughtful about our approach. The first thing we did is we think about, what’s the implication of the name, Paramount Network? It’s movies, that’s the first thing that your mind would go to. And what’s the essence of movies? It really is about being transported into another time and place, escaping the preoccupations of your own day-to-day life through rich, satisfying characters and stories and just cinema in its pure form. We’re trying to translate that into what we’re doing at Paramount Network in the sense that we really want things to be cinematic with really great storytelling and have really complex, nuanced, complicated characters where the setting really is almost like a prime character of the whole piece.

The best example of that is the one that was here when we got here, which is Yellowstone.

It’s very cinematic. It has a movie star in Kevin Costner. It’s got really deep, rich, complicated characters, and the great interpersonal family relationships, and it can just keep exploring a lot of different stories with those characters, my hat is off to the previous regime who developed that. The two things that were developed for Paramount Network were Yellowstone and Waco, and they both worked really well.

Yellowstone was the biggest launch last year in cable for a new show. It had over 5 million viewers an episode, and Waco really did well. I think there are certain things that unite those shows, and it can be a template for how we’re moving forward. We’re not looking to do niche kind of dystopian world stuff that you see in the landscape a lot. We’re aiming for stories and characters that are very relatable.

It almost is like having a broadcast-like, broad appeal, but not a broadcast sensibility so that it’s not simple-minded or working more on the surface, but it really explores more deeply, what it means to be human in the sense of nuance and complexity and contradictions and so on. For the new stuff that’s coming, I think it fits in that same realm.

68 Whiskey, which we just ordered to series and are going into production soon. it’s from Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s company Imagine. The setting is a military medical unit in Afghanistan. It’s kind of like a modern-day M*A*S*H in a way. It both lays out this really rich cast of characters in a very specific place, and it really endears itself to both really dramatic elements and real comedic elements, and I think it will be really satisfying, relevant content for our audience.

We’re developing a new show with Michelle MacLaren called Coyote, and we attached Michael Chiklis as the actor.

It’s a part tailor-made for him; it’s a really complex character He’s a border patrol agent, and he is forced into retirement, and then he gets sucked into all sides of that world,  the drug cartels in Mexico, the human trafficking and the authorities on the U.S. side.

The deeper he goes into that world, he discovers more complicated, sometimes dark and nefarious characters. It’s almost like a Breaking Good in a way, because the more he gets sucked into those worlds, the more he gets in touch with his own humanity and keeps evolving as a better person.

It just feels like a very relatable, timely world to explore, but in a way that both has broad appeal, but is more challenging and more rewarding for someone who would invest their time in it where you can go really deep with character and exploring all of the nuances of what it means to be human.

DEADLINE: What about Heaven Of Hell?

ALTERMAN: It’s a partnership with Charter and Paramount TV Studios. Rodes Fishburne created this very rich world in the south in Mississippi, very complex, enthralling family dynamics and a lot of characters interrelated in a small town. It’s another one that feels like it fits right into our creative filters, and we’re excited about it.

DEADLINE: Are there any other projects in the pipeline through Viacom’s Charter partnership?

ALTERMAN: Heaven of Hell is the only one at the moment, but yes, we’re digging down to talk to them about if there’s other ones that will intersect our interests that we can partner up on.

DEADLINE: 68 Whiskey was originally announced as a pilot and became a straight-to-series order. Are you going to primarily order projects straight to series at Paramount Network, or are you still going to do pilots?

ALTERMAN: Well, it really depends. In the case of 68 Whiskey, we got the pilot script, and we were so blown away by it that we thought, okay, we could do a pilot first, but we were so excited about it, it feels so right for us. In this case, we also had the benefit of a pre-existing series — it is based on an Israeli format — with a great reference for us, and so when you can kind of combine that with how strong the script was, we just thought why do that step? It didn’t feel necessary to us, and so we just circumvented the pilot and went straight to series order. A lot of times, you do pilots so you can really learn what works and what doesn’t work and how you can make adjustments. In the case of Coyote, that’s a original idea that’s being developed and there’s no script yet even. So we’ll do a script and go from there.

DEADLINE: In terms of volume, how quickly are you planning to grow? What is the three-year goal?

ALTERMAN: We’re looking to do probably four a year, that’s what we’re gearing up for.

DEADLINE: Is this the goal by Year 3?

ALTERMAN: Maybe sooner. It does take time to develop and ramp up in the scripted realm, but I think we’re in good positions probably to do it before that.

DEADLINE: You mentioned Waco. Will you continue to do limited series?

ALTERMAN: Yes, maybe we’ll have an umbrella where there can be different ones that fit under the same umbrella, because, yes, Waco is a good example of one that works. It’s self-contained as a mini series, but it worked really well, and it really hit all the same creative filters as we’re aiming for for our scripted series. One project we have in development that has been announced is The Accused from David Shore.

It’s more of an anthology series where each week is a different character who’s going to meet their fate in the form of being found guilty or not guilty for some crime, and it really plays with time; it shifts back and forth between the present case and really unfolding the narrative that led to that point. I think that will be a really compelling one.

Younger Sutton Foster Debi MazarDEADLINE: Can you talk about the decision to move First Wives Club, a reboot of the movie with a black lead cast, to BET and to keep Younger at TV Land?

ALTERMAN: When we first came in, the senior leadership team and myself, we tried to apply the same playbook that we’ve been doing the last few years at Comedy Central, which is, again, to take a very holistic look at everything, not just original content, but choices we make in acquisitions and programming and scheduling and being more strategic about everything.

As this team came into place a few years ago, at Comedy Central we’ve had 12 consecutive quarters of share growth. We started doing the same thing at Paramount Network, of really trying to simplify and clarify and be more strategic in terms of all of those issues from acquisitions and utilizing the resources and programming and scheduling.

I think we’ve been here six months or so at Paramount Network, and the last five months have all, for the first time ever, enjoyed five consecutive months of share growth. Part of what we did in this process of trying to be holistic and really simplify things was, we realized that the things that were working at Paramount Network were the things that were developed for Paramount Network, Waco and Yellowstone being the two prime examples.

Things like First Wives Club or Younger, they weren’t developed for Paramount Network. It was sort of cobbling together assets from different directions to try to make a more robust launch of Paramount Network, and I think that was a difficult proposition. We were looking at did it make sense to have something that was developed for one brand to put it on another brand?

While we’re examining that, BET is just desperately clamoring for First Wives Club because it fits what they’re doing so well and their creative filters, and so we just thought, okay, let’s foster that to happen. These decisions to put them there preceded us, the moving Younger and moving First Wives Club, and so when we were just trying to take a holistic look at everything, as it related to Younger, we thought, well, Younger’s been on TV Land successfully.

It’s a very established series that’s working really well with the TV Land audience, and if it’s not broke, why would we try to fix it, and do we really have the luxury of trying to market that show to a new audience at Paramount Network? And so we thought, you know what? It makes more sense to just keep it at TV Land where it’s really established, and that was really born out in season five that we just launched this year. It was the highest rated in the history of the show, which is pretty unheard of in this day and age. So a lot of it was just trying to simplify things.

DEADLINE: In light of Younger moving back  to TV Land, what is the future of original scripted programming on that network?

ALTERMAN: Right now, we’re just about to launch the next season of Younger, and we’re constantly looking at our acquisition strategy. As far as our original content, right now, we’re just more focused on Paramount Network. TV Land is working so well. It’s being so successful right now, it’s not really screaming to be tinkered with, and so, we’re just putting our resources and time and energy more into Paramount Network.

DEADLINE: In terms of genre, Yellowstone and Waco are dramas, Emily in Paris is a dramedy, 68 Whiskey is a dark comedy. Are you going for a balanced slate or will there be a drama skew?

ALTERMAN: Well, I think we’re leaning more into drama, but we’re not opposed to comedic elements. I don’t think we want to turn Paramount into a comedy network in that regard. Part of the excitement for me about Paramount Network is being able to delve into the more dramatic side of development and content and talent, and I find them all very complementary. It kind of goes back to where I started (at New Line).

68 Whiskey is a great example of one that can really embrace both sides of it, have really dramatic elements and comedic elements to it, and I think that just makes it more human. But we’re not looking specifically to start diving into comedy as a genre on Paramount Network at the moment.

DEADLINE: The dramedy night, is it officially gone, and is there any chance Heathers will ever continue?

ALTERMAN: Well, yes, there’s no plans right now for a female-driven dramedy night. The good news is that we’ve achieved gender balance on Paramount Network. So we’re definitely embracing that and looking to continue to have a really nice gender balance, and a lot of the stuff that we’re doing I think really promotes co-viewing, as well, and I think that’s part of the secret sauce of success on Yellowstone.

As far as Heathers goes, that came before me, so I can’t really speak to that so much. There’s no plans at the moment to do anything with it.

DEADLINE: Will there be any cross-pollination now that Comedy Central, Paramount Network and TV Land are all under your purview?

ALTERMAN: Yes, I think that we’re really open to that in different kinds of ways. For example, The Other Two, we just launched successfully in January on Comedy Central, it was wildly critically successful, people really adored it. We started airing that on TV Land along with Comedy Central, and it played really well, and it felt like it was an additive audience.

So I think that we are really open to the idea of things that work in that way.  Another way that comes to bear a bit is, even when we have taken this holistic look at how we’re approaching Paramount Network, one of the things we really considered is that we’re not existing on an island or in a bubble. We are part of a corporate world that also has Paramount Film Studio, Paramount TV Studios over there, and a lot of Paramount channels in various territories across the world.

So we’re spending a lot of time now connecting with all of those other elements to start looking at ways that we can really leverage either existing IP over at Paramount and create new content, but in conjunction and in partnership with these other entities that are all part of the same corporate ownership. I think we’re approaching that in new ways, and we’re looking forward to having more things to announce in that regard down the road.

DEADLINE: One for the first original series on the rebranded Paramount Network was Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. How big a part of the portfolio will docuseries be?

ALTERMAN: Well, the one we’re really leaning into right now is the I Am series. The first season has featured Sam Kinison, Chris Farley, Richard Pryor, JFK Jr., Heath Ledger, there’s one on Jacqueline Onassis coming —  a figure, it could be from comedy, drama, politics.

But we’ve been trying to ramp those up and have more of them because again, we’re trying to really lean into what’s suggestive when you hear the name Paramount Network and it’s movies. There’s a lot of different ways that we can be evocative of movies, and the I Am series feels tailor-made for a really satisfying documentary series that will feed the same interests in our audience.

DEADLINE: What about your reality series? You have leftovers from Spike in hits Lip Sync Battle, Ink Master, Bar Rescue, and you recently ordered a new Wife Swap. What is the strategy there?

ALTERMAN: We’ll have more to say on all of that down the road soon, but yes, Ink Master and Bar Rescue are both on Paramount Network and both performing really well; we’re about to launch a new season of Lip Sync Battle. Wife Swap was a good example of something that just felt right for us because it has a lot of the same qualities that really work. Viewers can really transport themselves into another person’s life in a way that is rich and rewarding. It’s not escapist and empty calories.

The new version of Wife Swap is definitely updated for the times that we’re living in, and it goes up to another level in terms of not just being so traditional, like traditional marriages. It really explores the fractured times we’re living in —  people with different political orientations, sexual orientations, family orientations, all that really come into high drama, and it’s like a fight and unite kind of quality.

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