As Paramount Television International Studios Refocuses, Its Top Exec Unveils Mandate

Paramount Global has unveiled a name change and new mission for its international studios operation, Paramount Television International Studios. Maria Kyriacou, the executive overseeing the division, said the business will now focus its work on scripted content that can help “accelerate growth for Paramount+.”

The former ITV Studios president of international was hired by what was then Viacom in late 2019, before its merger with CBS closed, as president of U.K., Northern and Eastern Europe based in London. She started post-merger in early 2020, with her role changing to president of ViacomCBS Networks U.K. and Australia due to a new regional cluster organization. Last year, the conglomerate changed its name to Paramount Global, and CEO Bob Bakish’s new mandate was for a closer alignment of global teams and streamlined operations: global mindset, local execution.

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With that in mind, Kyriacou now oversees studios and broadcast operations outside the U.S. “Working in close partnership with the Paramount+ team, our content strategy is clear – we are looking for shows that drive acquisitions and engagement for Paramount+,” she said in explaining the goal set for Paramount Television International Studios.

Kyricou talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the change, why Paramount will still license its content to third parties, the role of the company’s production hubs in Israel and Latin America, as well as NCIS: Sydney as an example for successfully taking a Paramount franchise and localizing it.

Your international studios operation is rebranding and refocusing. Why that change, why now and how does it fit into the bigger corporate priorities?

We are mobilizing the business, its resources, its creative know-how behind the strategic priorities, and those strategic priorities are to grow our streaming business and to maintain the strength we have got in our TV media business. That TV media business is the broadcast business that I also run internationally on behalf of the organization. And that sort of mobilizing requires us to refocus and making sure that we are delivering amazing, fantastic, the best possible creative dramas and scripted shows for Paramount+, shows that are going to sit really comfortably next to the U.S. content. That really big, noisy U.S. content allows us to have Kevin Costner as one of our stars and Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

Our international shows have to sit beside these shows, these brands and these movies. And at the same time, they need to do a different job. They need to reflect the local culture and the local history and the local stories of each of the countries we are now present in with Paramount+. So I’m very, very much aware that there is a responsibility for us to work with the local French creatives, industry and creative community in order to bring French stories to life that are in French and that are right, not some idea from outside of what represents French culture. I kind of want to skip over that step.

There is a step that streamers sometimes do when they go to the obvious, they go to the thing they think a country represents rather than what a country really does represent. I’m going to skip that step. That’s the step that is about learning about the country and I want to get straight to the point where we are embedded in those countries. That’s where I come from. I have always believed that creativity comes from small hubs that are embedded in the local culture and in the local place.

So it is about authentically representing international stories and territories?

If you really want to win with audiences, what we have to do with our streaming service and with our broadcast business is to reflect the local country as it currently is, the modern nation, the way the territories that we are in actually are. And also we just have to make sure that we are bringing the producers, the local producers along with us. So the way we are going to work with Paramount Television International Studios is we are working with the local production sector in each of our markets, we are going to have creative leads in those markets themselves who really have come up and have grown up as executives within their own markets rather than from the outside. And what we want to do is bring to life those local stories.

I’ll give you an example: The Flatshare, one of our early shows out of our U.K. team, is a rom-com, but it is a modern rom-com based on 20-somethings who can’t actually afford rent in London, because that is the truth. They are not going to be living in Chelsea. If you are a nurse in London, you don’t live in Chelsea, you are struggling to pay rent. And neither of these wonderful young 20-somethings can actually afford rent and they have to not only share a flat, they have to share a bed and they timeshare their bed. It is really modern and at the same time, it still got all the sweetness and the lightness of a proper rom-com.

'The Flatshare'
Jessica Brown Finlay (as Tiffany) and Anthony Welsh (as Leon) in ‘The Flatshare.’

In the broader streaming space, many companies have started to declutter and make more targeted, bigger content bets rather than throwing various things at the wall. How do you think about the balance of quantity and quality?

We are not just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. We are leaning very much on our need to understand local audiences and what appeals to a mainstream popular audience. Those are the kinds of shows we are trying to make, mainstream and popular, rather than satisfying multiple niches all at the same time. I think that it is important to have the local flavor that sits beside the big U.S. franchises, it is our intent to have long-running series and to create our own international franchises over time.

At the same time, what we want to be doing is using the strength, where it is natural and obvious, of the existing U.S. franchises and converting them into something local. NCIS: Sydney is a perfect example. Because right in Sydney Harbour, right by that bridge, is a naval base. If you ever go to Sydney, it is a really well-known location. And suddenly you have got some story that feels very much like an Australian story that people can buy into, but actually builds on a pre-established brand. So when that happens, and there are more of those in our development, when there is something that just feels very organically right for a country, we will do it. It is not just NCIS as well. We will announce more at some future time.

How will the new mission change work for people working at Paramount Television International Studios or other parts of Paramount?

PTIS is very much part of (president and CEO of CBS and chief content officer of news and sports for Paramount+) George Cheeks’ content studio, and that gives you multiple benefits. One of them is behind the scenes, we are just going to align on how we do everything and make sure that we are using the same backbone for decision-making. The business side of this, the commercial side of it, needs to become standardized, and we have made a lot of progress already on that one. We must make sure we are using the same smart people that we have got in the business already to help us with the business and commercial and the rights management side of all of this.

The second bit is creative. Not just in George’s world, but also in the worlds of (president and CEO, Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Networks) Chris (McCarthy) and (president and CEO, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon, and chief content officer, movies & kids & family, Paramount+) Brian (Robbins), there are people who we are going to link up with to do internal co-productions.

We have got two brilliant examples of that already. One is Sexy Beast, which we are making with (Paramount Television Studios president and president, Paramount+ original scripted series) Nicole Clemens who is also part of George’s world. The other one is A Gentleman in Moscow with the Showtime team, part of Chris’ world. So that alignment and putting us all together just opens the door for us to be able to make the shows that are right for the U.S. market and the brands we have got in the U.S. market and perfect for us as well. Both A Gentleman in Moscow and Sexy Beast were filmed in the U.K., one in Liverpool, one in Manchester. They very much feel British to us, because we are doing something I think the U.K. does super well which is classy period pieces with a superb British actor. And Sexy Beast is based on an iconic British movie that, as soon as you see that poster, you know instantly what that is.

Chris McCarthy’s networks group recently said it was laying off 25 percent of its domestic team and shutting down MTV News. How does Paramount Television International Studios fit into this?

Bob’s message is it is a global business with local execution. That is how we are working within George’s organization, but also working across Chris’ and Brian’s. And what I said earlier about mobilizing all of our creative resources and passion behind the key priorities of the organization is part of that. Rationalization makes it sound like you are just cutting and cutting and cutting. Actually what we are doing is we are just taking all of that activity and we are focusing on Bob’s key messages: we are a global business with local execution and focus on our key priorities of growing our streaming business and maintaining our broadcast business as strong as possible.

You have a focus on growing Paramount+ and such broadcast networks as Channel 5 in the U.K., Telefe in Argentina and Network 10 in Australia. How do you think about releasing your originals on Paramount+ versus free-to-air networks or showing them on both?

We are going to be using multiple audience touchpoints. That is the key strength for us. If you just take the U.K. as a sort of microcosm of that, in the U.K., we have got the full spectrum of the most significant sort of audience touchpoints, and we just need to make sure that our content is available to audiences at those touch points. Let’s take a small example, (British Paramount+ drama-thriller) The Ex-Wife will come to Channel 5 later this year.

And we certainly intend to make sure that our content is moving across in Australia. Five Bedrooms was a Network 10 (comedy drama) show that then moved to Paramount+ as a Paramount+ original. And we will be going back to Network 10 in a window that we will decide over time as we evolve.

Do you also plan to continue to license shows to third parties?

Because we are about to get into the L.A. Screenings, it is really key to confirm that the Paramount distribution team represents the rights on all the shows we are making outside of those Paramount+ territories. And that does give us quite a lot of access to the party.

How is the Paramount and PTIS approach to content distribution and windowing different from other companies?

The difference is that we have the linear business, we have a free streaming business, we have the biggest FAST channel in the world, we have got cinema audiences, and we have got paid-for linear, we have got paid-for streaming – we do have all of those different services as part of the organization. And rather than treating the windowing of content as an afterthought, it is embedded right at the beginning. We are looking at what we are making and we are making sure that it is going to have a life through all of those services. That is where our strength lies as Paramount.

With Paramount’s increased focus on franchises, to what degree do you see the chance of maybe doing international TV versions of film franchises or creating new franchises from international territories?

I think that if there is an opportunity, we will take it. It is really important to have really strong franchises to bring viewers to you. We do that in broadcast TV as well as streaming. I think that we have to sort of do the balancing act of existing IP, and new IP. With the international content that we are starting to drop into the service, we have got this opportunity to start building what will be the new franchises of the future.

What will you emphasize in talking to your team in terms of what is key for the new Paramount Television International Studios?

It is an overused word in our industry, but authenticity. If you are going to make an Italian show, make it about modern Italy, make it speak to the audiences in Italy. Authenticity is really key for me, and making sure that what you are trying to do is going to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. We are unashamedly popular – that is our brand across broadcast. And that is what we are taking across into our decisions around what shows we make for Paramount+ as well.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight?

We have talked a lot about focusing the organization on delivering the shows for Paramount+. But in that, we shouldn’t forget that we have got these two brilliant bits of Paramount Television International. One is Ananey, based in Israel, which allows us to tap into the phenomenal talent that is there both in terms of writing and producing. And Ananey is not only going to be making content for Paramount+, but for third parties as well. And then the other huge strength we have got is our physical studio capability in Latin America, not only in Colombia, but also Mexico, in Argentina because of Telefe, and we are in Chile as well. So across Latin America, we are encouraging our organization to work with third parties on bringing other people’s shows to life as well.

It is about making sure that we leverage these two centers of excellence for the studio as a whole. So with the Israeli writers, we are trying to find shows that we can do as co-productions. And with the studio facilities that the Latin American team has, there are numerous shows currently in production, not just for Latin America, but for the U.S. and for Europe as well.

And it is also cheaper to produce there than in the U.S., right?

Yeah, it is less expensive, but most importantly, the production expertise that they have got is phenomenal.

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