Showtime Programming Strategy to ‘Evolve’ as RuPaul, BET Brands Added to Mix

Changes are afoot for Showtime as the newly enlarged ViacomCBS scrutinizes its $13 billion in content spending across the company.

ViacomCBS on Thursday unveiled plans to rebrand the Showtime Showcase channel — one of a handful of secondary channels in the Showtime group — as Sho BET to feature scripted series aimed at African-American audiences. That move reflects the joining of Viacom and CBS Corp., which was completed in May, and the fact that Showtime Networks chief David Nevins now also oversees BET Networks.

Another sign of post-merger synergy came Thursday with the news that VH1 hit reality franchise “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” will produce a new season to air first on Showtime, following the June 5 conclusion of the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on VH1.

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish told investors during the company’s fourth quarter earnings call on Thursday that Showtime will remain a big player in premium scripted series that are its cornerstones today, titles such  as “Homeland,” “Shameless” and “Billions.” At the same time, Bakish acknowledged that the high cost of Showtime’s scripted programming “was a working capital headwind for the company in 2019.” He said the decision to blend the RuPaul and BET brands into Showtime was an effort to broaden the overall appeal of Showtime to prospective subscribers. At present, Showtime has more than 27 million subscribers through linear MVPD distribution and the standalone streaming app.

“Showtime will continue to be a home for scripted shows,” Bakish said. But he also pointed to lower-cost unscripted programs as “Desus and Mero” and “The Circus” as signs that Showtime has the ability to “evolve that programming mix” and take a “multi-faceted approach” to improving the unit’s financial picture.

“We see an opportunity to lean more in this (unscripted) direction as there are new ViacomCBS assets to bring to the mix,” he said. The Sho BET rebrand should help in “attracting incremental subscribers, he said. At present the Showtime Showcase channel airs mostly movies as well as comedy and music specials.

The mothership CBS network is also taking a hard look at its content mix and spending priorities. “They’re spending less on pilots this year,” Bakish said. “They feel very good about where the network is so they’re able to be more prudent….Rest assured, in general, we’re looking at everything.”

ViacomCBS was under pressure to deliver a detailed forecast for 2020 and beyond as well as news on the strategy side as the company’s stock has taken a double-digit drop since the Viacom-CBS merger was completed in early December. Investors have been wary about the company’s ability to compete against larger rivals in the simmering streaming wars and Peak TV gold rush.

Early trading on Thursday indicated that investors concerns were not assuaged. The stock sank 15% in early trading on Thursday.

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