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Zoe Thomas: This is your Tech News Briefing for Thursday, September 30th. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. The battle for streaming dominance has been going on for a while. Now movie studio Paramount, which is already in the mix, is rallying for a bigger piece of the pie. Leading the charge is Paramount’s new boss, Brian Robbins. He has experience appealing to younger audiences, a key factor in growing streaming subscriptions. And Robbins plans to use Paramount’s franchises like Star Trek to hook those viewers. WSJ media and entertainment reporter Joe Flint spoke with Robbins. On today’s show he joins us to discuss his conversation and what Paramount’s plans mean for audiences. That’s after these headlines.
YouTube says it will remove videos that make false claims about vaccines. That includes claims that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause severe health effects. The platform had already taken steps to curb misinformation about COVID 19. This move expands that effort to other vaccines as well. YouTube said it would take down videos alleging that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer or infertility, or claims that vaccines don’t reduce transmission. But the company said it would leave up videos about vaccine policies and new vaccine trials, as well as personal testimonies related to inoculations.
Other social media platforms have also taken steps to suppress false claims about vaccines, but they don’t always take those posts down. CNN has restricted access to its Facebook pages in Australia. The decision follows a ruling by Australia’s high court that makes news organizations legally liable for comments on their Facebook posts. According to a person close to CNN, the news network asked Facebook for a way to disable all comments on its Australian pages. The social media giant declined. Instead, it offered to help CNN disable comments on posts one by one. And Facebook will be under scrutiny by lawmakers today. Senators will be asking what the company knew about its effects on the wellbeing and mental health of children. The hearing comes after a Wall Street Journal investigation we’ve talked about before, which exposed Facebook’s internal research about how Instagram could have a negative impact on young users, especially teenage girls. We’ll have live updates on the hearing on our website, wsj.com. And we’ll be bringing you a Roundup of what happens on tomorrow’s show.
Okay. Coming up, Paramount Pictures, the movie studio behind classics like Chinatown and the blockbuster Transformers is turning to a children’s TV executive to help it in the streaming wars. We’ll discuss what the new boss has planned. That’s after the break.
Brian Robbins had decades of experience producing TV shows and movies for children and teens. And had been running Nickelodeon for three years when Nick’s animated film, PAW Patrol: The Movie debuted this summer. The movie was super popular at movie theaters and on Nick’s partner streaming platform, Paramount Plus. And that success may have helped catapult Brian Robbins into the top seat at Paramount Pictures in early September. But of course, it’s not just one film. ViacomCBS, the parent company of Paramount and Nickelodeon, is looking to step up its efforts in the streaming wars and Robbins’ background in kids programming and his consumer appeal approach could be its secret weapon. I’m joined now by reporter Joe Flint who’s been talking to Robbins about his plans for Paramount and its streaming service Paramount Plus.
Joe Flint: Hi.
Zoe Thomas: Brian Robbins was head of Nickelodeon for the past few years, but he has been in the business for a while.
Joe Flint: Yeah. Most of the general public would probably recall him when he was a star in a 1980s ABC sitcom called Head of the Class. He started out as an actor and then transitioned to the producing ranks and the executive ranks. And over the past 30 years built a solid resume in terms of TV and movie credits. And then after a good run at Nickelodeon, he was promoted up to run Paramount.
Zoe Thomas: Robbins is taking over from a movie industry veteran, Jim Gianopulos. What is expected to be different about his approach from his predecessor?
Joe Flint: Well, I think one of the reasons that ViacomCBS, the parent company of Paramount, put Brian in charge is that he has a little bit more of a digital savvy approach to content. In between the acting and the producing, he also ran a company called AwesomenessTV and they produced a lot of content for the gen Z audience. And he made dramas for the old WB Network. One Tree Hill, which ran forever. And of course, Smallville. So he’s had a lot of success with young viewers and also success in reaching them on new platforms.
Zoe Thomas: Okay. So they’re going after younger viewers. Does that mean that Robbin’s focus has to be entirely on streaming?
Joe Flint: It doesn’t mean that it has to be entirely on streaming, but it will be heavily on streaming. The challenge for Robbins, as is the challenge for all the studios, whether it’s Warner, Disney, Universal, is the balancing act between creating big movies that have to live in a theater, your big franchises, whether it’s Fast and Furious, whether it’s the Top Gun sequel that Paramount’s making, whether it’s a new Star Wars movie, those things that have to go into a theater. Not only because they’re made to be presented that way, but because they cost so much to make and market that you really can’t get the return on them from a streaming service. So you’re still going to be making those movies and then counting on those movies to later help boost your streaming service. But at the same time, you need to be creating exclusive content for your streaming service.
Zoe Thomas: All right. So let’s talk about Paramount Plus. It’s a relatively new name to people who have streaming services. It’s kind of a reboot of CBS All Access that was there before. But how does it kind of fit into this growing and competitive landscape of streaming?
Joe Flint: Paramount Plus is relatively new. It was born out of basically taking the old CBS All Access and combining it with a lot of Paramount content to sort of try to create a mega site, which not to bore the audience, but which came about after CBS and Paramount parent Viacom, merged together. So I don’t know if it’s fair to say whether they got a late start or not, because funny enough, All Access was one of the first streaming platforms out there, out of the gate. But it’s been rebranded. It’s starting over. So yes, they need to reestablish themselves. And they have some successful original franchises, whether it’s the Star Trek shows or the legal drama, The Good Fight, but they want it to be bigger. All the media companies, all the traditional media companies are really putting an emphasis on streaming because that’s what Wall Street wants to see.
And there’s also of course, a recognition that the consumer is becoming more and more accustomed to watching things at home on the TV, through streaming platforms, through apps. And so they all want to establish those direct to consumer relationships with the folks at home. And the other way you do that is by having familiar content there. So you talk about franchises and why they’re so important because if you look at Disney, they’re being carried by The Mandalorian, Marvel shows. I mean, they’re new shows, but they’re under that Marvel brand. And re-runs of The Simpsons. Those are the three things really driving Disney Plus. So with Paramount, they look at the kids programming they have from Nickelodeon. They look at a movie like PAW Patrol, which was based on a Nickelodeon TV show that not only did well at the theaters, but really brought new engagement to Paramount Plus. And they want to go through their library and find other assets that they can dust off and turn into new movies or new TV shows.
Zoe Thomas: Is it harder for established brands like Paramount to make the pivot to streaming?
Joe Flint: It is tougher for established media companies to pivot because unlike a Netflix or an Apple or an Amazon, these companies have traditional businesses that are still very profitable. So it’s tough. If you have cable networks that generate lots of money in subscriber fees and ad revenue from TV shows, it’s tough to want to take content away from them to put them on this new platform that may or may not pay off right away. So it’s a challenge. We’ve seen it in the theatrical business as well. And COVID has sped up a lot of changes that might not have come to theatricals for a few more years. We saw Warner Brothers decide to put their entire slate of 2021 movies on HBO Max at the same time they are in theaters. And that’s a risk to the theatrical business, which right now is still very valuable.
Zoe Thomas: Does the fact that Paramount, this hallmark of the Hollywood movie system turning to streaming, does that mean that the time of theatrical releases is over or at least not as relevant?
Joe Flint: I think the theatrical movie business is changing in many ways. I think theatrical releases will still be relevant for big budget, franchise, special effects movies, where you need a big global box office to recoup those investments. Where it’s changing and where we’re seeing the Netflix’s and Amazon’s and Apple’s of the world step up more, are those mid-budget movies. Are those movies that might be aimed for families. Or those movies that in the past we would see released at the end of the year in the hopes of winning an Academy Award or getting a nomination. Those sorts of movies which might get critical acclaim, but might not get 150 million or 200 million in the box office. Those are the ones that are starting to migrate more towards streaming. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Consumers are driving all this. Everyone always talks about, well, the technology companies are changing the way everything works. It’s like, well, consumers are embracing it. So there’s a reason for that.
Zoe Thomas: So the sticky movie theater floor isn’t going away anytime soon, but the landscape seems to be changing at the very least.
Joe Flint: Yes. The landscape’s changing. And I think some theaters are going to try to change as well with it, but it takes a long time. It takes a long time for the incumbents of an industry to recognize the way things are changing.
Zoe Thomas: Sounds like Paramount is embracing some of those changes. All right. That was our reporter, Joe Flint. Thanks for joining us, Joe.
Joe Flint: Thanks for having me.
Zoe Thomas: And that’s it for today’s Tech News Briefing. You can always find more tech stories on our website, wsj.com. And if you like our show, please rate and review it. You can do that wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.