CBS Boss George Cheeks on Writers Strike, Locking New 3-Year Deal for Stephen Colbert, and ‘Late Show’ Replacement ‘@Midnight’

CBS chief George Cheeks has said the broadcaster is maintaining a “fluid and active” approach as it curates its fall programming schedule amid month two of the writers strike.

The executive, who took on his new remit at CBS just weeks before the pandemic struck in March 2020, said the streamers’ series model poses “serious challenges” for writers that the whole industry will need to “figure out” in the long term.

Cheeks was speaking as part of a wide-ranging keynote session at the Banff World Media Festival in Alberta, Canada, where Paramount Global has been the most prominent studio on the ground.

CBS unveiled its fall programming schedule on May 10 — just over a week after strike action got underway — though it’s likely going to look a little different given the writers strike and a potential actors strike on the horizon. Variety understands that the Eye has contingency plans in place stretching right across the fall, but stopping short of January.

“The DGA deal tentative agreement was helpful; let’s see what happens with SAG,” said Cheeks on Tuesday. “I would just say that, as opposed to broadcast where that series model is tight and works very well for our creative partners, I do think the way that the streaming series model is evolved poses serious challenges for creative partners that we have to figure out.”

Cheeks also touched on the “significant challenges” faced by U.S. media companies. “A year-plus ago, it was ‘figure your streaming out, build your [subscriber acquisition] at any cost, profits be damned.’ That was sort of the mandate. And then all of a sudden it became the opposite. Now it’s ‘how fast can you get to profitability?’ And if you are profitable already, how do you enhance that profitability? It’s forcing all of us take a step back and really rationalize our contents spends.”

Cheeks said the climate has also forced streamers to recalibrate their exclusivity model and be more open to windowing — a strategy that could prove beneficial for writers, whom the exec referred to as “creative partners.”

“The one positive there is that I actually think that will help us with our creative partners because one of the big issues they complain about is streaming residuals,” said Cheeks. “But I think the more that we’re not locking the shows on one platform, [the more we] actually license out more revenue to the studios and get more residuals for our partners.”

Asked about the differing positions of studios and streamers on the AMPTP side, and whether the legacy studios would ever “cut” Netflix, Prime Video and Apple out, Cheeks laughed before diplomatically responding: “The purpose of the AMPTP is for us to work as a collective unit on this … I mean, there are challenging issues — we’re not all exactly positioned the same way — but I still remain very hopeful that we will find compromises. This is existential for all of us, for the studios and the creative partners. We have got to figure this out.”

Elsewhere in the session, Cheeks revealed that CBS has extended Stephen Colbert’s contract for another three years, through to 2026: “They’re absolutely crushing it,” said Cheeks of the “Late Show” team. “It’s a great, cohesive group firing on all cylinders.”

Meanwhile, the executive also laid out his strategy for replacing “The Late Late Show with James Corden” with a resurrected Comedy Central format called “@Midnight,” which Cheeks officially confirmed.

“The 12:30 a.m. slot is ripe for reinvention. There aren’t a ton of people watching at that hour, you really do need to think about what is the true cross platform version? What we ended up doing, first of all, it’s Funny or Die and Stephen Colbert, so the auspices couldn’t be any better. But when we sat down and talked about it, we talked about ‘@Midnight,’ and it’s sort of been an irreverent comedy game show with stand-up comics and celebrities as guests. To me, it has a really nice feel coming out of Colbert.”

The “only reason” the show hasn’t been officially announced is because Cheeks wanted to secure a head writer and showrunner but couldn’t close the deals before the writers strike. “I still believe that once the strike’s over, that they can come back,” he said without revealing names.

Cheeks leads all CBS-branded assets within Paramount Global, including CBS Television Network, encompassing CBS Entertainment, CBS News and CBS Sports, as well as CBS Studios, CBS Stations, CBS Media Ventures and CBS-branded digital assets. His global remit also includes extending CBS News and CBS Sports content to the Paramount+, as well as responsibility for BET, Paramount Television Studios and the company’s free-to-air networks in the U.K., Australia, Argentina and Chile.

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