Hot Seat—Viacom’s Kevin Kay discusses the nuts and bolts of turning Spike into Paramount Network

Paramount Network will retain some of Spike's current programming like "Lip Sync Battle." (Spike)
Kevin Kay

Network rebrandings are not unheard of, but they don’t happen all that often due to the incredible amount of work they require. Kevin Kay, president of Spike, TV Land and CMT, should know since he’s done it before.

Nearly 14 years ago, Kay helped relaunch TNN as Spike. And now, he’s doing it again, as Spike will become Paramount Network in January 2018.

Kay said that the timing for the relaunch is partly so Paramount Network can avoid having to compete with programming like the NBA, NHL, fall broadcast premieres and three nights of NFL football. But the launch date will also give Paramount time to assemble a programming slate befitting its new designation as a premium entertainment destination.

“While we were anxious to do the rebranding as quickly as possible, making great programming takes time,” Kay said.

Paramount Network will have “Waco,” starring Michael Shannon, which was already being developed by Spike, and “American Woman” starring Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, which is being developed by TV Land. Paramount will also have the Kevin Costner-starring drama “Yellowstone” and a six-part docu-series about Trayvon Martin, produced by Jay Z and the Weinstein Company.

But before Paramount Network can begin, tons of logistics need to be navigated. Kay recently talked with FierceBroadcasting about the nuts and bolts of a massive rebranding, what operational changes needed to happen and how to shake Spike’s reputation as a men’s channel.

FierceBroadcasting: Since Paramount is already such an established brand in terms of television and film production, does that make it easier to build a network around it?

Kevin Kay: I think it makes it easier on some levels and it’s harder on some levels. Yes, you’re right, it is an established brand. We immediately went out after we made this decision and started to do some research about what does Paramount mean to the consumer. The truth is Paramount is associated primarily with movies. Even though there’s a Paramount TV studio, in the consumer’s mind it’s a movie studio with great intellectual property. So that’s the good news, right? There’s no hurdle. The consumer looks at it as something that’s high quality, that’s cinematic, that has a rich history of storytelling.

The flipside of that is, when you ask people what do they think would be on a Paramount Network, they say movies. They don’t think TV shows. That’s where we have to market to, that Paramount Network is a TV channel that’s going to have the quality of movie storytelling and movie stars in front of and behind the camera.

FierceBroadcasting: Programming is probably the biggest piece in addressing that but, from an operational standpoint, what needs to be done to change Spike into Paramount?

Kay: First thing we did was look at the development team and reorganize it. We brought in Keith Cox, who has a long history in scripted and a lot of success in scripted. He was at TV Land and was responsible for “Younger,” with Darren Star. He is an experienced, seasoned, well-liked television executive with a big history with scripted, so we needed to line up the development team behind somebody like that and make a statement to the creative community in Hollywood that we have somebody they like to work with and they believe in and who has a history of success.

We also realigned the marketing team. Niels Schuurmans, who had helped me rebrand TNN into Spike, had left us for a while and went over to the sales side where he created a creative unit. He built that for three years. I thought we should bring him back because he has the experience of rebranding. He knows what it takes and was my partner for all those years with the launch of Spike.

And then you start to think about what the resources are that are required to do this. People think about a rebrand and they think we’re going to change the name from Spike to Paramount and that’s just going to magically happen on the TV screen in January. The reality is that there’s a tremendous amount of branding and rebranding that goes on, whether it’s the signs on the buildings to the business cards to the stationery to every single logo that exists on every piece of television, in the credits and the end cards, in the messaging, in the press releases, in any kind of communication. You have to look for who can make that happen and what amount of money it will require.

Later this year, that off-channel marketing that we’re going to do to talk to consumers about Spike becoming Paramount and Paramount as a premium entertainment destination, is going to require a lot of resources and a lot of investment from Viacom to make people aware that the change is happening.

People think it’s easy, but having done this once before, there’s a lot of heavy lifting.

FierceBroadcasting: Is there anything Viacom is doing specifically to help pay-TV providers with this transition? Or is it fairly straightforward for them?

Kay: I think it’s straightforward. It’s a communication process with all of our MVPDs, letting them know what’s happening. But sure, programming guides have to change. I can tell you, incidentally, because Spike itself went through several different transitions—we were the first network for men, then we were “Get More Action” during the years we were heavily into mixed martial arts and then we changed the logo a couple of times—even today you can go in some program guides or you can read an article about Spike where one of the old logos is being used. It makes me crazy when I see that, but it is a reality that you have to constantly be in communication with your pay-TV providers, communications partners and marketing partners to make sure everyone has the right materials and understands what’s going on.

FierceBroadcasting: You’ve said the name Spike is still synonymous as a men’s network even though the programming has been moving toward more general entertainment. For Viacom, is there anything else it has to do in building the new Paramount Network to help ensure that perception goes away?

Kay: Honestly, I think that we have to spend a good deal of money to get that message out there. Viacom needs to invest and they are investing. They are heavily behind us. In the portfolio of the Viacom networks, you’ve got a lot of networks that are very targeted at audiences, whether you look at MTV and millennials, or Logo and BET, there are many networks that have very specific audiences. For a long time, Spike was a network largely geared toward men. Even though we did move the needle toward general entertainment over the years and made some shows like “Lip Sync Battle” and “Ink Master” that had much larger female audiences than male audiences, the perception that Spike is a network for men is still with us.

That’s why changing the name to Paramount was a brilliant move because it completely wipes out that legacy of men and it says something that feels like it can be more easily gender-balanced.

It’s Paramount’s heavy lifting to do. Viacom is essentially our corporate overlord, our bank, our partners, and we take all of our direction from them. But they’re 100% behind us in financing getting the message out there on every platform, and that’s not a small task. Paramount is a global brand. There are 12 Paramount channels around the world in 125 countries that I think reach close to 100 million people. We all have to be aligned. There’s a movie studio, there’s Paramount television studios, with whom we are working deeply toward using that intellectual property wherever we can to create shows. We want to be in the ownership business, which I think is important to Viacom. What better place to find content we own than the Paramount library.

Part of what Bob Bakish has done and part of his mission when he came to the company was that, the company was very siloed. [Bakish] has been about breaking down those silos and his direction from the top has certainly helped in this transition to give us a better working relationship with Paramount’s movies and television businesses.