Paramount isn’t making this easy…

Paramount+ will officially arrive in just a couple of days’ time here in the UK, and there are a lot of questions over its viability as well as its short- and longer-term prospects. The fact that the UK is currently experiencing some of the worst economic issues of the past forty-plus years is going to have a massive impact, and that’s not Paramount’s fault nor is it something that the corporation could have done anything to avoid. But it’s far from the only issue that looks certain to affect the new streaming platform… and practically all of the other problems we’re going to talk about are Paramount’s fault.

In early 2021 I wrote an article here on the website titled The ad campaign for Paramount+ has been surprisingly strong. In that piece I took a look at some of the advertisements that had been created in the run-up to the US launch of Paramount+, some of which featured the likes of Anson Mount and Sir Patrick Stewart. Paramount (which was still known as ViacomCBS at that time) even spent an insane amount of money to advertise during the Super Bowl in 2021 – and Super Bowl adverts are the most sought-after and expensive in the United States.

Sir Patrick Stewart in one of the American Paramount+ adverts that were shown in 2021.

I complimented Paramount at the time for not only the scale of the advertising campaign – which appeared to be pretty extensive over in the United States – but also for the content of some of the ads. The aforementioned Super Bowl commercial played the song Sweet Victory from SpongeBob SquarePants (as a Nickelodeon production, Paramount owns SpongeBob) and that was a masterstroke!

But with the launch of Paramount+ mere hours away, it’s hugely disappointing to have seen nothing of the sort here in the UK.

If Paramount+ is to stand a chance in a hugely competitive streaming market during the worst cost-of-living situation in decades, at the very least there should’ve been adverts for the service somewhere. Paramount+ is launching years behind its competitors, so if viewers are to be expected to take the plunge and part with our cash, Paramount needed to step up weeks ago and do something – anything – to sell it to us.

Paramount+ made a splash at the Super Bowl last year.

Star Trek’s use of social media is awful, I don’t think anyone would dispute that. And in a broader sense, Paramount hasn’t got to grips with social media in the same way as some of the other big entertainment companies. So it’s no surprise to me to have seen practically nothing from any of the official accounts – even the official Paramount+ UK Twitter account has only half-heartedly tweeted out a couple of messages “counting down” to the platform’s launch. There’s been radio silence elsewhere (though I have to credit some particularly dedicated Star Trek fans for doing the job of Paramount’s marketing team for them!)

This is purely anecdotal so take it with a grain of salt, but no one I’ve spoken to has seen any promotional material or advertising for Paramount+ either. I have several friends and neighbours who are subscribed to Sky TV – a well-known satellite television provider here in the UK – and they have likewise seen or heard nothing about the impending arrival of Paramount+. Why does that matter? Well, Sky TV and Paramount+ have teamed up to offer subscribers to certain package deals access to Paramount+ at no additional cost. I would have expected Sky TV subscribers to have seen something – an advert, a reminder… anything at all, really – with Paramount+ so close to its official launch.

Paramount+ has some kind of deal with Sky TV in the UK.

Perhaps Paramount has already given up on the UK, at least for 2022. Knowing how bad the economic outlook is, and looking at how big streaming platforms like Netflix have been losing subscribers may have caused some in the Paramount boardroom to hit the panic button. As a result, a large-scale advertising campaign – something that costs a lot of money no matter how you do it – may have been taken off the table. Paramount may simply be content to get the biggest fans of its biggest franchises on day one, and save the advertising push for a future date when the cost-of-living crisis and inflation have settled down somewhat.

That’s my generous assessment. Now for the less-generous possibility: this is just the latest in a long line of decisions that show how Paramount doesn’t actually value non-American consumers nor the marketplace outside of the United States. The board may see the international launch of Paramount+ not as an exciting opportunity to bring in profit, but as a tiresome chore that must be completed in order to shore up their share of the domestic American market. In order to make Paramount+ look like a good investment, a safe long-term subscription, and a genuine competitor to the likes of Disney+ and Netflix (which, incidentally, it is not), they took the decision to roll out Paramount+ internationally. They did so not because they care one iota about viewership outside of the United States, nor even really to turn a huge profit, but simply to make Paramount+ look better to investors.

The advertising slogan for Paramount+ in the United States.

We’ve talked at length here on the website about the absolutely disgusting corporate attitude present at Paramount, an attitude that says “America First!” with Trumpian gusto. The Paramount board clearly and demonstrably does not care about non-American fans, viewers, or the marketplace in the wider world, and the state of Paramount+ when it lands in the UK this week is yet another testament to that. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which has broadcast seven episodes at time of writing, will arrive in the UK not with all seven episodes available, but with just three. The recently remastered 4K version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – which was literally created exclusively for Paramount+ and has never been available or broadcast here in the UK – will likewise be unavailable when the streaming service arrives. The Halo series that I recently reviewed has already concluded its first season – but again, only three out of nine episodes will be available to UK subscribers this week.

Paramount has made a conscious choice to make its streaming service worse in the UK – with less content available – than it is in the United States. The corporation and its leadership continues to double-down on this selfish “America First” attitude, so in a way I shouldn’t be surprised that they can’t be bothered to launch even the most basic of advertising campaigns to promote Paramount+. That doesn’t make the situation any less disappointing, though… and this short-sightedness will have serious long-term consequences for the platform’s viability.

Donald Trump would be thrilled.

As things sit right now, I would wager that most folks in the UK are completely unaware of Paramount+. Some super-fans of franchises like Halo or Star Trek may have heard of it through the course of pursuing their fandom, but your average viewer knows nothing about an American-only streaming service. In order to simply raise awareness of the existence of Paramount+, some kind of advertising campaign was necessary. There needed to be television ads, cinema ads, radio ads, ads and promoted posts on social media, banners on websites, and perhaps some kind of “stunt” akin to SpongeBob at the Super Bowl to get people talking. Paramount has done none of that, and the result is now predictable: the service will land on the 22nd of June to absolutely dire subscriber numbers.

Obviously it costs money to advertise on television, in cinemas, online, and so on. But Paramount has had an ace in the hole that they could’ve taken advantage of: the advertisements and promotional material that they put together for the platform’s American launch. Those ads, as I noted when I took a look at them last year, were pretty good – and with a small amount of work they could’ve been repurposed for the UK market. Paramount would’ve still had to pay to air those ads, of course, but they wouldn’t have had the expense of creating them from scratch.

Anson Mount appeared as Captain Pike for the American ad campaign.

Here in the UK, Paramount has a significant media presence already. Their biggest property is free-to-air broadcaster Channel 5, but they own a number of other channels both on Freeview and cable/satellite such as 5Star, Nickelodeon, MTV, and the Horror Channel. At the very least you’d think there’d be a significant advertising presence on Paramount-owned channels in the days leading up to the launch of Paramount+. Doing so would be relatively inexpensive as Paramount wouldn’t have to pay itself to advertise on its own channels! But again, at least as far as I’ve seen, there’s been nothing – or next to nothing – to promote Paramount+ on any of these channels.

Paramount has recently announced plans to market Paramount+ “throughout the summer,” including setting up some in-person events in London, and that’s a positive noise from the corporation. But the time to get people excited for a new streaming platform is really in the days and weeks leading up to its launch – now is the time to have been pushing and seriously trying to sell people on Paramount+ as being the next “must-have” streaming service in their lives. Doing so slowly over the course of the summer isn’t bad… but it may be too late.

The official Paramount+ logo.

As a Star Trek fan (and a casual fan of other Paramount properties), I’m invested in the success of Paramount+. I want it to succeed and be profitable – including here in the UK – because that seems like the best way to guarantee the future of Star Trek and other franchises. I don’t want to see Paramount+ crash and burn – despite the insulting moves the corporation has made and its appalling attitude towards people like me – because that could very well mean the end of the Star Trek franchise. So I want to see a successful, profitable Paramount+ that brings in loads of subscribers. There are some great shows that either are or will be on Paramount+ that have genuine potential to blow up and become huge successes.

But the question is, does Paramount want that? Does the corporation see this international rollout as a glorious opportunity… or is it a torrid chore? Do they care about viewers outside of the United States… or is this merely an expensive exercise in branding? Does Paramount have a genuine ambition to compete against the likes of Netflix, Disney+, and UK television broadcasters… or has the board already resigned itself to lacklustre subscriber numbers for at least the rest of this year?

I wish I knew the answers, and I wish I understood why there’s been so little fanfare for Paramount+ with the service now only a couple of days away from its launch. But one thing is certain: Paramount has done everything in its power to make this launch as difficult and low-key as possible.

Paramount+ will be available in the UK from the 22nd of June 2022 as either a standalone subscription or as part of a Sky TV package. All franchises and properties discussed above – including Paramount+ – are the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

This Sceptred Isle – is it in poor taste?

Well that didn’t take long! The first major television drama about the coronavirus pandemic was announced recently, and is currently scheduled to debut on Sky here in the UK next year. But surely, with coronavirus still raging as the series is being filmed, it’s far too soon for this kind of show. Isn’t it?

This Sceptred Isle is billed as an examination of the UK government’s response to the “first few months” of the pandemic. And in many ways, such a story is worth telling. The UK government did not handle the pandemic’s arrival particularly well, being slow to put measures into place that were already being taken by other countries, in particular Italy. As a result, the UK’s per capita death toll has been higher than many comparable western nations, and despite the success of the vaccine rollout – I got my first dose of the vaccine last month – that remains a stain on the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Promo picture of Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle.
Picture Credit: Sky TV.

But something about This Sceptred Isle just rubs me the wrong way. It feels like it’s in incredibly poor taste to create a fictionalised drama series based on something so significant and that has cost so many lives while it’s quite literally still raging on. Not to mention that planning for the series, writing scripts, hiring producers, and so on must’ve been going on for months already – pre-production on any show takes time, and for This Sceptred Isle to have begun filming at the end of February it must’ve been conceived at the latest by last summer, with plots and storylines already prepared.

What I fear will be the case is that the series will have an axe to grind, and rather than making any real attempt to faithfully retell the events of the early weeks and months of the UK’s pandemic response, it will instead descend into a farcical and utterly fictitious portrayal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government. I’m not a political person, and the electoral fortunes of Mr Johnson are not my concern. But a series like this presents itself as factual, or at least fact-based, and I seriously question how it can be.

This Sceptred Isle is being produced by British satellite broadcaster Sky TV.

No major government figure has broken ranks since the pandemic began to tell “their side of the story.” Actual verifiable information of what went on behind closed doors in Downing Street in the first half of 2020 doesn’t exist; at best This Sceptred Isle will be based on hearsay. When a series is trying to bill itself as having at least a basis in fact, that’s not acceptable.

One of my favourite miniseries of the last few years was HBO’s Chernobyl. Like This Sceptred Isle, Chernobyl took a factual event – the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – and dramatised it for television. As I noted once, some pretty significant changes were made, including the creation of a fictional “composite” character. However, the events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster were well-established by 2019, with books written about the subject, involved persons having given frank first-hand accounts of what took place, and decades of historical analysis of the precise details of the disaster and its consequences for the creative team at HBO to draw on. The result was one of the best pieces of television made in the last few years, and something which is as accurate as can be for a dramatic work.

HBO’s Chernobyl earned widespread acclaim… but was produced years after the events it depicted.

All of that was possible because of the series’ distance from the events it depicted. Almost a quarter of a century had passed since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the passage of time allowed for more information to be available, making the show more accurate. This Sceptred Isle is filming now, right in the middle of the pandemic. Despite some signs of progress in some parts of the world, the pandemic is not dying down nor going away, and we can’t say what the state of affairs will be in six weeks or six months from now, let alone by the second half of next year. That context is crucial to a series like This Sceptred Isle, and will be entirely absent from the production.

How we reflect on the pandemic’s early days will depend entirely on what course it takes over the remainder of this year and into next year. Will it die down with the rollout of vaccination programmes across the world? Or will it adapt, flare up, and continue to wreak havoc? Without knowing the answer to that question, This Sceptred Isle may very well end up on the wrong side of the argument, either being overly-critical of a government that did its best, or by being too lenient in retrospect. It’s an impossible line to walk without knowing what happens next.

This Sceptred Isle aims to look at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic – but the pandemic (and his handling of it) are still ongoing.

In short, This Sceptred Isle is trying to produce a television series based on an unfinished story. We don’t yet know how or when the coronavirus pandemic will end, nor what all of the consequences will be. There will be political fallout from it, that’s all but certain. But without knowing which way to lean, without crucial information that won’t be heard in public for several years at least, the show will be little more than straight-faced pantomime, stabbing in the dark trying to tell a compelling story without the necessary facts or information to do so.

If its objective is to criticise the government and convince people not to support them, maybe the creative team will consider This Sceptred Isle a success. If they don’t care about creating a fact-based depiction of events to begin with, they naturally won’t be bothered by such criticism. But blindly attacking the government at a dangerous moment is not a good thing, and I’m concerned that if This Sceptred Isle is nothing more than a teardown of everything the government has done, it will have implications for the country. If we’re in a position when the series is broadcast where more vaccinations are needed, or where there are still some rules or restrictions in place, a savage attack on every aspect of the government’s handling of the crisis could lead to people ceasing to abide by the rules or become unwilling to get vaccinated.

Could there be unintended consequences if This Sceptred Isle goes too far in its attacks on the UK government?

I’m positive that there was a mad rush on the part of television producers to be the first to make a major drama series based on the pandemic, and Sky jumped the gun and managed to get in ahead of everyone else. But in this case, patience may be a virtue. If This Sceptred Isle is shown to contain scenes which are demonstrably false, that will harm its reputation and damage Sky’s brand.

A series like This Sceptred Isle is important and necessary – but not yet. Right now it’s too soon, and with people still sick and dying both in the UK and around the world, it seems aggressive and downright ghoulish to try to dramatise the pandemic for money. Not only that, but because of the lack of clear and verifiable information about what’s going on in the real world, the series will be inaccurate at best – and completely and utterly wrong at worst. Maybe that’s what it’s designed to be; Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party are not well-supported in the entertainment industry as a whole, and this could simply be a way to attack them. But when the entire offering is based around telling a story grounded in the truth, that’s not good enough.

Art and entertainment will dine out on the pandemic in the years ahead. There are so many different kinds of stories that can be told about it, from the exciting and tense to the wholesome and sweet. Some projects can be timely, considering the effects of things like refusal to wear a mask or vaccine hesitancy. But a project like This Sceptred Isle, with its inclusion of characters based on real people and claiming to depict real events, comes at the wrong moment. It’s too soon – and that makes it feel as though it’s in very poor taste.

This Sceptred Isle will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK in “Autumn 2022.” International distribution has not been announced at time of writing. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.