A Fledgling Network Banks on Kevin Costner and Some Mean Teens

Posted January 17, 2018 8:04 p.m. EST

LOS ANGELES — In September, the cast and crew of the TV series “Heathers,” a reimagining of the (very) dark and violent comedy from 1989, were hard at work in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley creating an updated vision of the film’s fictional Westerburg High. For fans of the original, the effect was both familiar and dizzying.

There were metal detectors at the school’s entrance painted in the primary colors of the big-shouldered blazers worn by the first team of Heathers, the clique of withering Queen Bees who rule the school. In the halls were vending machines selling Big Fun chips, a nod to the film’s goofy boy band with sage musical advice (“Don’t do it”) about teenage suicide.

Even Shannen Doherty, a scrunchie-wearing mean girl in the original, was here, shooting a scene for the final episode of the series, in which she plays someone who should be dead but unexpectedly isn’t.

The series, which debuts in March, is part of Viacom’s transformation of the formerly bro-friendly Spike TV into Paramount Network. Cinematic is the buzzword executives keep using to describe the newly branded network, which was set to go live last week.

Besides adaptations of other beloved movies in the Paramount vault (like “The First Wives Club,” which starred Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler and is getting the half-hour comedy treatment), there are series that feel like big movies (“Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner as the patriarch of a ranching clan) and ones that feature stars best known from movies (notably, Michael Shannon and Alicia Silverstone). And the network’s logo has the same iconic mountain and stars as the Paramount movie studio.

“We’re kind of leaning into the 100 years of the movie studio,” said Keith Cox, the network’s president for development.

The rebranding comes with steep challenges. There’s no shortage of alternatives in this streaming age of Peak TV, and a mainstream network with advertising will be hard-pressed to compete with the commercial-free HBO and Netflix, which Kevin Kay, the network president, said are two of the Paramount Network’s main competitors. Also, enticing big-name talent to a fledgling network with no track record is hard enough, let alone one that began life airing WWE bouts, “Baywatch” reruns and specials with names like “The 100 Most Irresistible Women.”

When Viacom started Spike in 2003 as “The First Network for Men,” advertising from video games and male-skewing action movies was plentiful. But as those revenue streams dried up, at least for a modestly rated cable channel like Spike, the network pursued a broader audience, swapping shows like “Impact Wrestling” for programs like “Lip Sync Battle” and “Tut.”

Still, the Spike moniker (and lots of showings of “Cops”) kept the network from truly being seen as a general-audience destination.

Cue the name change. The reinvention also fit it in with the corporate decision under a new chief executive to focus on six of Viacom’s bigger brands (BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., and now Paramount), at the expense of its smaller ones (TV Land, CMT, VH1 and Logo).

Paramount Network, which bills itself as “television’s destination for premium entertainment and storytelling,” will showcase original programming (about a third of the schedule), supplemented by TV series and feature films culled from the Viacom and Paramount vaults (“Pitch Perfect,” “The Devil Wears Prada”). There will also be many fewer showings of “Cops.”

The network was set to begin its new life with a live episode of “Lip Sync Battle” on Thursday, Jan. 18, followed on Wednesday, Jan. 24, with its first big offering, “Waco,” a miniseries about the botched siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. The show epitomizes the network’s chase for the cinematic, with grand vistas; a fully reconstructed Texas compound; and name actors, including Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights”) as David Koresh, and Shannon as the FBI hostage negotiator tasked with bringing him in.

Inhabiting the role of that embattled cult leader, accused pedophile and wannabe rocker took its toll, Kitsch admitted. “It took two months to come out of it,” he said. “That, and counseling.”

Later this year comes “Yellowstone,” created and directed by Taylor Sheridan (“Hell or High Water”) and starring Costner, who did not come cheap. The network is paying him half a million dollars an episode. “To get Kevin to agree to do multiple seasons of a TV series,” Kay said, “you have to pay him what he’s worth.”

The new name of the network probably helped lure Costner, too. “I’m not sure if he shows up for Spike,” Kay said. One of the biggest departures for former Spike lovers will be “Heathers,” which veers wildly from the original. In the new series, Doherty’s character, Heather Duke, is a gay male, while Heather NcNamara is now African-American. And the leader of the crew, Heather Chandler, is no longer a svelte blonde but a brunette self-described “plus-sized girl.”

“It was so nice to read a character who’s described as a big girl, someone who would be the teased, bullied person in the original movie,” said the new alpha bully, Melanie Field, a veteran of Broadway musicals (“Evita,” “Phantom of the Opera”). “And then to see her in a position of power, to see her saying, ‘This is who I am, I’m going to claim my power,’ I just found it really liberating and exciting.”

Despite the changes, there will still be frequent nods to the 1989 movie for the fiercely loyal “superfans” of the original, said Jason Micallef, the series creator and showrunner.

“It’s not like we taped over the original,” he said. To ensure Paramount Network had a decent stable of original shows in its first months, Viacom also transferred some properties from TV Land. “Nobodies,” a comedy produced by Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, about the hangers-on of the show-business world, begins its second season in the spring. And both “Heathers” and “American Woman,” a forthcoming comedy starring Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari set amid the sexual revolution of the 1970s, were originally slated for TV Land.

Paramount Network is also holding on to Spike favorites like “Ink Master” and “Bar Rescue,” as well as “Lip Sync Battle,” that dying network’s biggest ratings hit.

Further down the line, the screenwriter Tracy Oliver (“Girls Trip”) and the producer Karen Rosenfelt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) are working together on a serial version of “The First Wives Club,” while David Shore (“The Good Doctor”) is developing an adaptation of “Accused,” the award-winning BBC series.

Despite the eclectic mix of programming and some substantial budgets, Paramount Network’s reliance on advertising has kept them out of the game on some coveted projects, like an untitled Reese Witherspoon-Jennifer Aniston TV series that was recently purchased by Apple.

“I went in hard,” Cox said, “but we were told no matter what, the two of them didn’t want to be anywhere with commercials.”

But what Cox and other executives say they can offer the creators of TV shows is a lot more attention and care than, say, Netflix. The hope is to form a stable of show creators who will return for future projects and to secure those elusive hits that can define a network.

“You know, Netflix, they drop a show a week — Naomi Watts had a show,” he said, referring to “Gypsy, “and I was thinking, oh my God, if I had Naomi Watts, that would be huge for us. For them, it came and went. Poof, gone.” (Netflix canceled the series six weeks after its premiere.)

“We’re going to curate our shows like a museum,” Cox added. “We are going to pick really beautiful pieces, but we’re not going to just pile all kinds of stuff in here.”