Tuesday, December 29, 2020

ViacomCBS Launches 'South Hub' Within it's EMEAA Division

ViacomCBS’s new ‘South Hub’ in Europe has big ambitions for the region’s local productions and partnerships.

ViacomCBS’s ongoing retooling of its international businesses across networks, platforms and content creation arm ViacomCBS International Studios (VIS) continues apace, as it readies more territories for AVoD service Pluto TV and the roll-out of international SVoD proposition Paramount+.

The latest regional rejig within ViacomCBS Networks International's (VCNI) Europe, Middle East, Africa & Asia (EMEAA) operations is the formation of a ‘South Hub’ this summer, with former WarnerMedia exec Jaime Ondarza crossing over in June to head operations as Executive Vice President (EVP) and General Manager (GM) for the new business.

A subset of VCNI’s larger EMEAA footprint, which spans Europe (excluding the UK and Ireland), the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the new South Hub takes in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, from France, Spain and Portugal, Italy and Greece to Turkey and MENA.

“This is a newly created regional organisation,” Ondarza explained to C21 Media. “It was designed exactly to maximise the opportunities of the business changes around the world, and we decided to realign the whole organisation to make sure we continue being as successful as we have been in the past years, and probably even more so.”

Within VCNI’s EMEAA portfolio are well-known network brands like Nickelodeon, Nick Jr, MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Network and BET in local markets; AVoD service Pluto TV, SVoD Paramount+ and kids’ VoD Noggin; and production arm VIS, which has just unveiled a children’s division, VIS Kids.

VCNI’s EMEAA networks and brands reach 340 million-plus homes in 140 countries. Within that, the new South Hub oversees 27 countries, covering 64 channels, 23 websites and 90 social media accounts.

Working closely with Ondarza’s South Hub networks and brands is VIS for EMEAA, headed by Laura Abril. It started with a roll-out in Spain last year, where a scripted push and a development slate of 20 shows has been established. The plan under the new South Hub structure is to replicate a similar scripted production push in Italy, followed by France.

Abril’s role has expanded in the past year. As well as overseeing VIS’s EMEAA production activities, she has added the role of Senior Vice President (SVP) for VCNI’s network and digital brands in Southern Europe and the Middle East to her remit.

VIS’s studios operation is divided into local hubs within those regions, Abril explains. “We’re looking to develop and produce content not just for our owner-operated brands and platforms but also for third-parties using different production models. We seek partnerships in different ways in all these territories,” she explains.

Ondarza says ViacomCBS and VCNI’s strategy is based on four pillars: its existing networks and brands; the group’s digital transformation; content creation operation VIS, feeding its own networks and brands plus third-parties; and live events and offline consumer products.

The fifth season of Spotlight in Germany airs on Nickelodeon

Referring to its established networks and brands, Ondarza says: “We firmly believe they have a good state of health and a future.”

The exec reports strong growth and competitive performances from VCNI’s South Hub networks in Spain, Italy and France.

In Italy, for instance, Nickelodeon is the leading pay TV kids’ brand – Nick Jr. and TeenNick (which closed in May 2020) combined – on Sky, while ViacomCBS-backed Super! is the country’s leading free-to-air (FTA) kids’ channel. In Spain, Nickelodeon leads the pay TV children’s market, growing over 67% year-on-year in 2020. In France, Nickelodeon is the leading pay TV broadcaster, while Nickelodeon Junior leads among thematic channels for kids aged 4-12.

Meanwhile, Paramount Network, which is present in 57 million homes across the South Hub, has made gains in key markets such as France, Spain and Italy. Its highest is in France, where ratings have grown by 75%.

The future of those ‘traditional’ networks and brands are also now closely aligned to the group’s second pillar, focused on ViacomCBCS’s transition and transformation to digital, Onrarza says. “The digital transformation is a fundamental element of the strategy for us,” he explains. “It’s a really great view of the future and we have ambitious plans.”

SVoD service Paramount+ and AVoD offering Pluto are the spearheads of that transformation globally and in October VCNI rejigged its international streaming operations following the departure of Pierluigi Gazzolo, president of streaming and studios at VCNI.

Amid preparations for Paramount+’s global roll-out, fuelled by CBS All Access rebranding to Paramount+ in the US, the new SVoD service is already present in the Nordics and developments are underway in Australia and Latin America.

No Paramount+ plans have been unveiled yet for Ondarza’s South Hub, “but we are really looking closely also at this part of the world, because we have great content, especially after the merger of CBS and Viacom, great franchises and brands, a solid presence in the market, global power and local presence and expertise with strong partnerships,” Ondarza says.

Pluto TV is already making its mark. Available in European markets like the UK and Germany, it successfully premiered in Spain at the end of October. The service was launched in partnership with Telefónica-owned Movistar in Spain, VCNI’s existing pay TV partner. “They were smart enough to understand the opportunity it may represent in the future, integrating the free world with the pay world and making it a win-win strategy,” says Ondarza.

Pluto TV offers 40 free channels, including exclusive networks with Spanish and international content, as well as pop-up and branded channels like SpongeBob SquarePants (Bob Esponja) and MTV Originals. It plans to expand this offering monthly to reach 50 channels by the end of 2020 and 100 by the end of 2021.

Ondarza hails Pluto TV as a “unique” idea that gives ViacomCBS “a strong leadership and distinguishing position.” Within his South Hub footprint, Pluto TV will launch next in France in the first quarter of 2021 and in Italy the same year.

Another growing VCNI digital asset is preschool VoD service Noggin. Increasingly available on a range of platforms such as Apple TV, the service launched recently on Amazon Prime in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Pillar number three is VIS leading the group’s content creation ambitions. “We want to confirm our position as one of the biggest content players in the world, producing A-class content for our networks and our services, but also for third parties,” says Ondarza.

Over the past year, VIS EMEAA has developed “a great formula in Spain and we want to replicate it in other markets, including in the short-term – Italy first and then France,” he says.

VCNI’s attendance at last month’s MIA Mercato Internazionale Audiovisivo event reinforced this move, with Abril and her team currently scouting for the best local talent and already making inroads.

ViacomCBS’s fourth pillar is being one of the biggest players for events like MTV’s European Music Awards and Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards. It also covers consumer products, currently led by preschool brands such as megahit Paw Patrol.

“In an age when people are increasingly having digital experiences, there’s also a huge desire to go back to real life,” especially given Covid, Ondarza explains. “Events didn’t stop, they just became more digital. But we will go back to the real world.”

This time next year Ondarza believes the South Hub group will be the leader in both the traditional and digital spaces. “Pluto TV will already be consolidated in Spain, consolidated in France and quite well established in Italy,” he says, adding that he also expects continuing strong performances by the group’s networks and new scripted VIS productions emerging from countries like Italy.

“Content is king in our company,” adds Abril. “The uses we give to content are what will drive the business, whether it’s going to go to our networks, or to our streaming platforms, or to our partners in some other way. That’s the key to the evolution of our business.”

Current programming, original production, drama entertainment, formats, kids

Although VIS has a broad content remit to populate VCNI’s brands and territories, Abril says VIS EMEAA is largely present in three main areas of content development and production: kids, unscripted reality and comedy, and latterly scripted.

VIS’s scripted development in EMEEA is still young. “We haven’t done a lot for our brands because it wasn’t within our scope,” says Abril.

An early coproduction was Atrapa a un Ladron, a Spanish-language TV remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie To Catch a Thief, created by Spanish showrunner Javier Olivares and produced by VIS and VCNI for Paramount Networks around the world.

VIS’s Spanish hub now has a slate of 20 projects as the group taps an “amazing talent boom,” Abril says. The division isn’t just accessing writing and directing talent but also production talent, she notes, and the intention is to develop those relationships.

Investing in development has also taken a front seat during Covid, says Abril. “One of the interesting things about our industry right now is that everyone is becoming very receptive to partnering in different ways,” she says. While this trend has been evolving for some time, Covid has accelerated it, she says, “because the economy is pushing us towards new ways of sharing cost and sharing content and trade ideas.”

One Spanish series in the pipeline is dramedy When You Least Expected It (Un día de Estos), co-developed with Zeta Studios, maker of the series Élite for Netflix. Written by showrunning duo Cristóbal Garrido and Adolfo Valor, it follows a group of strangers whose lives intersect after they join the same support group for bereaved spouses.

Also in development is The Gypsy Bride (La Novia Gitana), co-developed with Banijay-owned Diagonal Television and adapted from a book series, with director and showrunner Paco Cabezas on board.

Another project in the works is a reboot of Stories to Stay Awake, a classic Spanish horror anthology series dating back to the 1960s from iconic Spanish director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador. “We will have extremely successful showrunners to run different episodes as a homage to this amazing director,” says Abril.

Stories to Stay Awake and When You least Expected It are likely to be the first two projects from the development slate to make it to screen. The latter will probably go to SVoD and FTA in Spain, and there’s already international interest in either adapting it or taking the ready-made show, says Abril.

VIS is now deploying the same scripted development strategy in Italy, followed by France. The aim is to create a slate of great Italian stories that can travel within Italy and abroad. “The more local they are, sometimes they become more universally attractive,” Abril says.

“One of the most interesting parts is that the whole world is now becoming so global that we tend to think about ‘glocal,’ as in importing mostly US shows into our international countries and then doing a little bit of local,” she observes. “I now feel there’s an opportunity to even do it the other way around.

“Thanks to streaming platforms, everyone around the world is becoming more open and receptive to non-English-language content, and I feel that opens a really broad opportunity for content creators.”

Already in the works for Italy is a biographical drama about Italian Baroque painter and feminist forerunner Artemisia Gentileschi, which has been greenlit for full development. The project is being exec produced by independent film and TV producer Frida Torresblanco and former ViacomCBS exec Jill Offman, MD of prodco 66 Media and former MD of ViacomCBS International Studios UK.

“It has originated in Italy because of this amazing character, but has a global objective because it’s going to be done in English and we know that English, in the end, opens many doors internationally,” says Abril. “Advanced negotiations” are underway with various as-yet undisclosed platforms.

The series is also timely in terms of its subject matter and ViacomCBS’s own diversity goals. “We just announced a new policy on diversity and inclusion for productions, which I very much like and support,” says Abril. “It means we won’t greenlight any new show that doesn’t have the right diversity standards that we expect our production to have.

“Of course, diversity is quite a broad concept and really varies from country to country and culture [to culture], but it’s one of our key goals as a company, and certainly in the EMEEA region.”

Elsewhere, VCNI has already launched its first African telenovela, Isono, on BET Africa. The 260×23’ production had been due to launch in the summer but ended up being postponed until late September. Its launch landed BET 171% share growth over its first four weeks on air and reaching 21 million-plus users on social media.

On the kids’ production front, the unveiling of VIS Kids, led by Nina Hahn, has underpinned its importance. While Nickelodeon remains the engine for kids’ originals, Abril says several partnerships across the world have also helped enhance developments in this area.

Deer Squad

One of them is preschool animated series Deer Squad, made with local Chinese streaming platform iQIYI, which became an instant number one in the country after launching. “Season two has just been greenlit and we’re working on a potential season three,” says Abril.

Partnerships are also being exploited through windowing. Live-action series Spotlight, produced in the Netherlands and Germany, recently completed a fifth season in Germany on linear channel Nickelodeon, with earlier seasons having gone to Netflix. The plan is to extend the franchise, says Abril. “We believe it really resonates with both kids’ audiences and the teen audience.”

For VCNI’s South Hub, the idea is to “deepen” the production, Abril says, pointing to further potential local versions for VCNI’s other kids’ brands, Italian FTA channel Super!, as well as Spanish-language opportunities with Latin American colleagues.

Elsewhere, VIS is already a major producer of unscripted shows in reality, factual entertainment and comedy for brands like MTV and Comedy Central. “Our aim is to use that expertise and partner with third parties not just to do more, but do it in a larger and more ambitious way,” says Abril.

Italian late-night satirical comedy series CCN, for instance, which is akin to US programmes like The Daily Show, has been produced in Germany and in Spain since launching in 2015. “Our intention is to continue doing that,” says Abril.

Other VIS productions include local adaptations of formats like MTV reality show Ex on the Beach, as well as the successful Italian version of 16 & Pregnant (16 Anni e in Cinta). Made by local prodco Stand by Me for VIS, it is now entering its eighth season.

VIS’s local production teams have also managed to continue delivering during the pandemic, observes Ondarza. “We faced big challenges in all the markets – mainly Italy, France and Spain – and Laura and her team have been amazing because they keep delivering on time and with high-quality, great content.”

Among these programmes is Zelig C-Lab, a new format launching this month on Comedy Central in Italy. It’s a collaboration between the network, VIS and Zelig Cabaret, an established cabaret theatre in Milan famous for emerging talent.

Pandemic production challenges not withstanding, Abril says VIS will be deploying a “hybrid” approach of case-by-case projects and longer-term partnerships to expand local originals for the South Hub.

With VIS producing almost all of VCNI’s shows in association with third parties, it is also a first port of call for external pitches.

“For now we’re taking it on a case-by-case basis, but I think one triggers the other – one single project may lead to a more in-depth partnership. And one of the positive things about our company is that we are generally very receptive to opportunities,” says Abril.

“And the proof is that we have a very 360º-driven model in our business, on streaming platforms, on pay, on AVoD, with the networks, but also the content that we create for third-party partnerships.”

Originally published: Tuesday, December 29, 2020 at 22:38 GMT.
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