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With Paramount Plus, ViacomCBS marshals new weapons in the streaming wars

The supersized service will replace CBS All Access. A ‘Frasier’ reboot is on its way.

ViacomCBS announced its aggressive streaming plans for Paramount Plus on Wednesday. (Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)
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And then came “Frasier."

ViacomCBS on Wednesday announced its beefed-up streaming service Paramount Plus, highlighting a dizzying mix of existing content, new shows and revivals of beloved properties like the Seattle-set sitcom, the latest bid by a media company to win coveted streaming dollars.

“This is a big day, a new day — a new beginning,” said ViacomCBS chairman Shari Redstone, speaking from a virtual presentation on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles.

The company is betting that renaming and supercharging CBS All Access — its existing service — with a vast supply of new content will help it compete with Disney’s Hulu, Comcast’s Peacock, Warner Media’s HBO Max and, to a lesser extent, Netflix and Disney Plus.

When it launches March 4, executives said, Paramount Plus will cost $4.99 per month for an ad-centric basic tier and $9.99 for a premium version — less than Hulu, Netflix, Disney Plus or HBO Max, and roughly in line with Peacock (though the latter offers a free limited option).

Unlike HBO Max, however, which allowed HBO subscribers to opt in for free, Showtime subscribers will not be eligible for an upgrade. All Access subscribers will automatically be switched over.

The launch completes a process that began when Viacom and CBS reunited in 2019, and now ensures every major media company has a robust streaming offering.

“This is not your father’s Viacom. And it’s not my father’s, either,” Redstone said, referring to the late longtime Viacom mogul Sumner Redstone.

Paramount Plus will offer 36 new original shows in 2021, part of a backbone of 30,000 total hours of television derived from CBS, MTV, Showtime, BET and other subsidiary networks. It will also make available about 2,500 existing movies — well above those of competitors like HBO Max, which has 1,300. Among the films in its catalogue are “The Godfather,” “Titanic,”” Sunset Boulevard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Grease,” “Top Gun” and “Love Story.”

At least some of those films will be getting new tie-in shows on Paramount Plus, as the service leans on established names to attract new customers. “The Godfather” will get a docuseries. “Love Story” will see a young-adult romantic drama. “Grease” rates a prequel. And other cinematic hits of decades past such as “Flashdance,” “The Parallax View” and “Fatal Attraction” will all receive their own original series.

New shows from Tyler Perry, “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah and a prequel to the cable hit “Yellowstone” are also in the offing, as it a host of new reality series and All Access’s existing news and sports.

Paramount Plus will also take a page from HBO Max and stage a reunion with the first season of its groundbreaking “The Real World.” The MTV library, which includes “Jersey Shore,” “The Hills” and other youth-oriented hits from micro-eras past — a “Beavis and Butt-head” movie is planned — are a potential key draw to the service. So is a roster of fresh Comedy Central and Nickelodeon content.

Few announcements made as much of a splash, though, as the “Frasier” revival. The Kelsey Grammer show, popular in repeats, will return much of the living cast from its highly successful original run, which the unit then known as Paramount Television produced for NBC. Its debut will mark the 540th episode, 23rd year and fourth decade a “Cheers” character is on the air. (The sitcom was of course a spinoff of the Boston bar series.)

The new “Frasier” will offer “coziness and great writing,” said CBS executive Julie McNamara, and be “nostalgic and contemporary all at once."

Collectively the content adds up to an impressive lineup of individual titles, which ViacomCBS hopes will compel people to sign up for a service despite a lesser-known overall brand. Geetha Ranganathan, a media analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, estimates that ViacomCBS will need to more than double its existing subscriber totals to 40 to 50 million to be successful.

“That seems like a tall order,” Ranganathan concluded in a note this week. ViacomCBS executives said Wednesday that All Access and Showtime’s streaming service had a combined 19 million subscribers; they think between 65 and 75 million Paramount Plus subscribers are possible by 2024.

The announcement spells a pivot from ViacomCBS’s recent approach of producing shows for free-spending outside platforms instead of distributing them itself. That tension was sometimes in evidence Wednesday, as executives touted shows it had made for other services including Netflix hits “13 Reasons Why” and “Emily In Paris.”

The company also sought to strike a balance between the twin demands of theatrical and streaming, announcing that 2021 releases “Mission: Impossible 7” and “A Quiet Place Part 2” will debut on Paramount Plus 45 days after theaters. That is shorter than the traditional 75-90 window but longer than Universal’s new 17-day plan.

ViacomCBS must navigate other conflicts. It needs to square Paramount Plus with Pluto TV, a free ad-driven library service it bought two years ago; with CBS affiliates, which could worry about ratings declines; and with Showtime, its existing premium service. On Wednesday the company said that many of Showtime’s series would stay put but that its anticipated “Halo” adaptation would move to Paramount Plus.

Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS’s chief executive, said those other shows were “a little less mass-market” and emphasized support for the network as a stand-alone entity. At rival Warner Media, the question of whether shows go to HBO or HBO Max has flummoxed some agents and creators.

All Access has already built a certain amount of buzz thanks to its “Star Trek” originals, sports and news offerings and “The Good Wife” spinoff “The Good Fight.” That gives ViacomCBS a headstart of sorts. The service launched in 2014 and began original programming four years ago — a lifetime in the streaming wars. (The company’s then-leader Leslie Moonves moved forward because he had opted not to join most other media companies in the Hulu venture seven years earlier.)

The effect is a time-bending one: CBS was early because it was late.

Now, in a sense, it is late again. Paramount Plus will compete with NBC Universal’s Peacock and Warner Media’s HBO Max, which launched eight and 10 months earlier, respectively. To gain new subscribers, Paramount Plus must either persuade customers to add to their growing pile of streaming bills or attract people as yet unmoved by the other services.

(Netflix and Disney Plus dominate with nearly 300 million subscribers combined and are seen, at this moment, as untouchable.)

Hulu has racked up 39.4 million subscribers, boosted in part by “bundled” subscriptions with Disney Plus. Peacock counts 33 million subscribers inclusive of its free option. HBO Max has had only 17 million people sign up, but with its $15 monthly fee takes in more revenue per subscriber.

Many consumers have felt weary by what can seem like an onslaught of services laying claim to the extra money lying around their desks every month.

But the companies argue that their deep libraries and expensive originals make their services a bargain.

In fact, most services are currently running at a loss and do not expect profitability soon. ViacomCBS will actually charge $1 less per month for Paramount Plus’s basic service than All Access despite the clearly higher investment.