Paramount Network, which launched Jan. 18 from the ashes of Spike, hopes a new original hit will attract viewers and help define the network as it emerges in a vast sea of viewing options.
The new cable network mixes holdover reality shows (Lip Sync Battle, Ink Master), films from Paramount's library and original series, starting with the six-part Waco (Wednesday, 10 ET/PT). Parent Viacom is diverting much of its scripted series focus to Paramount, moving some planned series from sibling networks such as TV Land.
While Spike (known earlier as The National Network) initially sought men, Paramount targets a broader audience of young adults.
"The strategy was to try to figure out how (to) cut the broadest swath and appeal to the biggest audiences," network president Kevin Kay says.
Among the first original shows:
• Waco, a six-part drama starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon that recounts the 51-day standoff between federal agents and Branch Davidians in 1993.
• Heathers (March 7), a dark comedy based on the 1988 cult classic about vicious high school rivalries. Shannen Doherty, who starred in the film, will make a guest appearance.
• American Woman (June 7), a 1970s period dramedy — as with Heathers, originally set for TV Land — inspired by the life of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills' Kyle Richards and featuring Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) and Mena Suvari (American Beauty).
• Yellowstone (June 20), an expansive drama about the world of ranching, lumber and oil interests playing out on a Big Sky ranch and featuring Kevin Costner. (Kay last week distanced Paramount Network from disgraced Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company, which produces Waco and Yellowstone, by saying they won't be listed in the credits.)
Although it's tougher than ever to launch a network, Paramount has elements in its favor, says Lisa Herdman, senior vice president at RPA, a Los Angeles ad firm.
"It could be extremely difficult, but I believe that Paramount should not have as many challenges as brand new networks (or) networks who don't already have equity in their name," she says. "They know who their viewers are and they're going to figure out the viewers they want."
If any of the shows strike ratings or critical gold, they could shape the identity of Paramount, as The Shield did for FX and South Park did for Comedy Central, Kay says.
"If you look at the history of cable channels, a lot of times the strategy evolves from the hit," he says. "We believe in all these shows and think they will appeal to different audiences. If Yellowstone works, and I believe it will, maybe we're going to go down a path of big, epic dramas. If Heathers works, maybe there's more dark comedies in our future."