CBS Studios International (CBSSI) is home to some of the most popular and most widely distributed procedurals, from the CSI and NCIS franchises to the more recent Hawaii Five-0 and MacGyver. In major markets, even against homegrown programming, these procedurals perform well in prime-time slots. For example, NCIS airs at 8:15 p.m. on SAT.1 in Germany and at 9 p.m. on M6 in France, while MacGyver airs at 9:30 p.m. on FOX in Spain and 8 p.m. on Sky 1 in the U.K.
Procedurals aren’t the only type of show distributed by CBSSI, which is headed by Armando Nuñez as president and CEO. While some viewers prefer stories that are neatly wrapped up at the end of an episode, others want to get hooked on narratives that stretch across episodes. For them, CBSSI has addictive serialized shows, such as Billions, Ray Donovan and the much-anticipated Twin Peaks from the U.S. premium service Showtime. Both CBSSI and Showtime are owned by the CBS Corporation.
Nuñez and his teams not only sell series from Showtime, but they also sell Showtime as a branded portfolio, in addition to product from CBS Television Studios—headlined by the highest-rated new series of the season, Bull—CBS Films and a library of more than 70,000 hours of programming. Nuñez has also been instrumental in helping to build CBS’s international joint-venture channel partnerships, which include 18 networks that are available in 24 languages and span 103 territories worldwide.
Reporting directly to CBS Corporation’s president and CEO, Leslie Moonves, Nuñez has some 30 years’ experience in international distribution, having worked at Viacom, New World International Television Distribution and Universal Television before joining CBS in 1999. As he tells World Screen, his focus has always been on offering clients the very best programming because business opportunities will inevitably follow, even in a media landscape where the only constant is change.
WS: CBS is known for its slate of procedurals. What are your top sellers, and are any of them being scheduled in prime-time slots?
NUÑEZ: The last couple of years have seen a divergence between procedurals and serialized shows. They are both valuable assets, but platforms look at them differently. Certainly from a broadcast perspective, when you look at the history of the CBS network and its content, we have more procedurals than anyone else. They tend to be broad; they tend not to be niche—they are the definition of what broadcast television is supposed to be, which reaches as wide an audience as possible. We have a long history with CSI, NCIS and these types of shows. Then there are procedurals that have a little bit of a serialized aspect to them, like Hawaii Five-0. CSI, NCIS and Hawaii Five-0 play in prime time basically everywhere. Bull and MacGyver are both off to very good starts. Procedurals are still very much in demand from a broadcast perspective.
Then you have the more serialized shows, which our summer event series [such as Zoo] tend to be and that’s the type of content that if programmed properly in a broadcast environment can work very well, but certainly also works very well in a digital environment. The benefit of procedurals for broadcast networks is that they repeat fairly well. They have a very long shelf life, for the most part, and we relicense them over and over again. The highly serialized shows, [whose seasons have] a beginning, a middle and an end and you know what the end result is, tend not to repeat all that well. But they perform very well in a digital environment.
WS: Bull, Michael Weatherly’s new show, has sold everywhere. To what do you attribute that success?
NUÑEZ: I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors. First, it was taking someone who was so popular as a result of NCIS and putting him in another show that allows him to be the Michael Weatherly that we all know and love, but he’s not DiNozzo. It’s a much different role and character. And the show has an interesting premise that is made even more appealing with a lead that is so well known from NCIS for so many years. When we first started working on Bull, I was a little concerned about it being perceived as a legal show and it isn’t. Obviously, there are legal aspects to it because it talks about the process by which juries are selected, but it’s perceived as much broader than a U.S. legal show.
WS: It’s about human behavior and that is universal.
NUÑEZ: Yes, and Michael Weatherly is great in it, and our team has done a great job selling it all over the world. For the most part, where Bull has premiered it has premiered well, and that is always reassuring.
WS: How are Billions and the rest of the Showtime content being received? Because it’s serialized, does that programming do well on pay-TV and SVOD platforms?
NUÑEZ: This highly serialized content performs extremely well in a premium environment, whether it’s pay or digital. Rarely is it one or the other. Usually it’s both at this point in the evolution of our business. Billions is a great example of the effectuation of our Showtime portfolio strategy. To revisit that for a moment, we took over the distribution of Showtime’s content when CBS split from Viacom in 2006, so 11 years ago. At that point, we had Dexter and Weeds, very few shows for which we owned the distribution rights. Back then we were dealing mostly with individual pay platforms in a territory, so basically one client to sell the content to and we were happy about it. Then two things happened: the evolution of the pay-TV platforms around the world and the evolution of the digital players, both local and U.S.-based players. This content is very much a limited commodity; there is not much of it out there. HBO had made a strategic decision some 30 years ago that they were going to control the rights to all the content they were creating and that allowed them to go out and build up their channel business, which is now in the process of evolving to their digital business. We didn’t have enough content to substantiate the Showtime brand. Over the years, the combination of making a more concerted effort to own what we are creating for Showtime, associating that content with the brand, and the success of Showtime in the U.S. allowed us to go to the marketplace and instead of just selling individual shows, we bundled together the whole Showtime portfolio and brand. Our first deal was with Bell Media in Canada about two years ago. Then we made a deal with Sky for their five European territories and with Stan in Australia. We concluded a deal with Telefónica in Spain, and we have one in France that I suspect somewhere in the near future we will be announcing.
Billions was an important part of these deals. Twin Peaks was also an important part, as were Ray Donovan and The Affair, all these brilliant television series that in the environment that we are in today, to a certain extent, replaced movies. These series are a new kind of long-form movie. It used to be that people watched movies on premium platforms and talked about them. But by the time movies get to premium platforms today, people have seen them because they have access to movies in so many different ways. If you are a Ray Donovan fan, you can’t wait to watch and talk about Ray Donovan. The same with Billions or any one of the Showtime shows. I can’t tell you how many people, especially from our business, can’t wait for Twin Peaks to come back! We’ve done extremely well with these Showtime partnerships, and outside of where we have these branded portfolio deals, we have a number of volume deals and individual licensing deals. Yes, these shows are not NCIS, they are not Hawaii Five-0, and they are not intended to be. This is not about viewership; it’s about subscription. And there are few titles out there that help drive the subscription model. This is about driving subscribers to your service and getting people to either subscribe or, just as importantly, stay subscribed.
WS: Tell us about The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery, which are both for the CBS All Access service in the U.S.
NUÑEZ: It’s original programming that we are creating for our direct-to-consumer, over-the-top offering, CBS All Access. We started with The Good Fight, which made a lot of sense for us coming off the huge popularity of The Good Wife. And from a creative point of view, we were able to make The Good Fight a bit more premium—the type of content that is a little bit more risqué and probably would have a little bit more of an issue on a broadcast platform. Then, of course, there is Star Trek: Discovery, which is one of the most popular franchises of all time. Internationally, we’ve done two significant deals for Star Trek, one with Bell Media in Canada, where Bell has the linear and the digital rights. And we did a significant international deal with our friends over at Netflix for the rest of the world. And after Netflix’s initial exploitation, once the holdback expires, we will have the ability to monetize Star Trek: Discovery in the first linear window.
WS: What considerations went into deciding to give the rights outside North America to Netflix?
NUÑEZ: Star Trek is a very important franchise for the company. It’s not inexpensive to produce. We are putting it on our brand-new platform in the U.S., CBS All Access, and it is going to drive subscriptions. But for us, the consideration was, what was the best way to monetize this franchise? We had a number of conversations with different people in the marketplace, and it turns out our arrangement with Netflix was very lucrative for the company, very lucrative for them and for Bell. I’m 100-percent confident that they are going to do extremely well with Star Trek: Discovery.
WS: You mentioned volume deals. Because the landscape is changing so much and broadcasters’ needs are evolving, are you beginning to think of different ways of establishing ongoing relationships with clients? I don’t know if output deals are done anymore outside of movies, but are volume deals still a good business for you?
NUÑEZ: You’re right, we don’t really have output deals anymore; we mostly have volume deals. Every time those volume deals come up for renewal, we weigh the pros and cons of doing those types of transactions. I think we probably have more volume deals than some of our competitors just because of the type of content we tend to produce, and the volume of the content tends to be quite manageable as well, so we’re an attractive volume-deal partner. We’re in an environment where change is now constant. A long-term plan is six months from now! You’ve got to stay on your toes and be diligent. We’ve been blessed with fantastic partners around the world and very different types of partners. So it’s an ongoing conversation with our partners about the best way to do things. When you think about the change we’ve had in this industry in the last five years, and even in the last year, change is constant. The one thing that doesn’t change through this whole process, irrespective of whether you’re a free-TV platform or a cable or a satellite or digital platform—subscription, free or whatever model you are—at the end of the day, it’s still all about the content. It goes back to that saying that is probably overused at this point, but no one watches technology. They watch content. What we strive to do is to focus on producing the very best content that we can for the marketplace, including the U.S., irrespective of the platform, whether it’s CBS All Access, the CBS network, Showtime or The CW. All those platforms are very different and we also produce for cable. Our mentality here is that if you focus on producing good programming, good business opportunities will follow. I don’t think we have all the answers in a shifting marketplace, but we try, working with our partners, to be as focused and as nimble as possible in an environment where it’s tough to see what things will look like next year.
WS: How have you seen windowing change and what factors are contributing to these changes?
NUÑEZ: Generally speaking, windowing, holdbacks and protection are a function of pricing. The more you pay, the more you get, to oversimplify it. But then again, when people are working within budgets and don’t have the ability to do that, we need to think, OK, how can we meet our CBS monetization objectives yet still make this content available to people who want it? And that becomes a windowing discussion. As you can imagine, it gets very complex across the board, with our legacy clients and our more recent digital clients. We are all trying to figure it out together. We’ve been as protective as we can to our broadcast partners. But at the same time, we need to monetize our content. At the end of the day, if we are cannibalizing our own business then we are not doing our job. We try to do this in a way that continues to protect our core business but builds through the various new, different licensing opportunities that exist out there.
WS: How do you work with David Stapf, the president of CBS Television Studios?
NUÑEZ: We speak a lot; we coordinate a lot, especially at this time of year. We go over scripts, we talk about potential casting and we talk about the appeal of projects from the U.S. perspective and an international perspective. But at the same time, I often say to him, over-simplistically, Just make it good! There is a lot of interaction between us, especially with our sales process, because for everything we are doing now for CBS and The CW, the timeframe is very tight from when we make a pilot to when we make decisions of what content is going to go on our networks and then roll it out for our 1,500 clients who come from all over the world to Los Angeles in May to see our content. David’s and my interests are aligned. In the case of procedurals, we want another show that is going to be appealing to the global marketplace, like a Hawaii Five-0, like an NCIS and a CSI and all the various permutations of those two shows, like a Bull and a MacGyver that will be on the air for a long time.
WS: And you have some new formats you are offering international buyers.
NUÑEZ: We’ve got Carpool Karaoke that is an offshoot of The Late Late Show with James Corden and our multi-territory deal with Apple on a global basis. We have a couple of territories where we will be doing some formats of that. Then we have Drop the Mic, which is another format from that show that we will be doing in a handful of territories.