From ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ to ‘Yellowstone,’ MTV Entertainment bets on scripted shows

Kevin Costner sits in a chair outside a tent.
“Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner, was TV’s most-watched scripted series last year. Another heavy hitter, actor Harrison Ford, is joining MTV Entertainment’s universe in a western prequel.
(Cam McLeod / Paramount Network)

When people think of MTV, chances are that “prestige” is not the first word that comes to mind. Viewers tend to associate the brand with popular reality programs such as “The Real World” and “Jersey Shore” rather than award-winning dramas.

But MTV Entertainment Studios’ bailiwick has expanded in recent years under the leadership of Chris McCarthy, a longtime executive at Paramount Global, the cable programming giant formerly known as ViacomCBS.

The growing umbrella of the MTV group, whose name was once synonymous with youth culture among Gen Xers and older millennials, now covers dramas such as “Yellowstone,” TV’s most watched scripted series last year. The western, starring Kevin Costner, drew an average of 11 million total viewers during its fourth season on Paramount Network, according to Nielsen numbers. The prequel “1883” was the most-viewed series premiere on streaming service Paramount+, until “Halo” topped it.


MTV Entertainment is coming into Paramount’s upfront presentation for advertisers this week with more than 90 new and returning shows, many of them scripted dramas and films.

“We certainly are well known for our unscripted series, but the real excitement has been around how quickly we’ve built up an incredible slate of scripted shows with incredible talent,” said McCarthy, president and chief executive of Paramount Media Networks as well as MTV Entertainment Studios. “The big story for us is the level of talent in scripted, the number of scripted series and how quickly we’ve been able to amass them.”

As Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. were recombining in 2019, Chris McCarthy faced a key decision: What to do about “Yellowstone”?

“Yellowstone,” produced by 101 Studios and created by Taylor Sheridan, is expected to begin its fifth season Nov. 13 with a two-episode premiere on Paramount Network. That will lead into the debut of Sheridan’s Paramount+ show “Tulsa King,” starring Sylvester Stallone as a fresh-from-prison New York mafia capo who sets up shop in Oklahoma. After two episodes on both Paramount Network and Paramount+, “Tulsa King” will move exclusively to streaming.

McCarthy’s group is set to make its pitch to ad execs Wednesday afternoon in New York at Carnegie Hall. Its upcoming titles for Paramount Network include “Yellowstone” spinoff “6666”; “American Tragedy: The Waco Trials” (working title); “Black Wall Street,” the story of Tulsa, Okla.’s Greenwood district; and “George & Tammy,” co-produced by Spectrum Originals, which portrays the relationship of country music stars George Jones, played by Michael Shannon, and Tammy Wynette, played by Jessica Chastain.

For Paramount+, the company will highlight more from its extensive deal with Sheridan, including “1883: The Bass Reeves Story,” starring David Oyelowo; “Tulsa King”; and “Land Man,” set in a west Texas oil boomtown. There’s also an “1883” follow-up with the working title “1932.” The company on Tuesday announced the casting of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren as husband-and-wife leads for the show.

Ford throughout his career has primarily worked in film rather than TV but recently joined the ranks of Hollywood movie stars transitioning to the small-screen. He joined the Apple TV+ comedy series “Shrinking” last month. Ford told The Times he was attracted to the “1932” project after speaking with Sheridan about his ambitions for the show, which takes place during the Great Depression and toward the end of the Prohibition era.

Chris McCarthy stands on a high-rise rooftop, with the New York City skyline in the background
“The real excitement has been around how quickly we’ve built up an incredible slate of scripted scripted shows with incredible talent,” says Chris McCarthy, president and chief executive of Paramount Media Networks as well as MTV Entertainment Studios.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

“It’s a very volatile time in the history of Montana,” Ford said in an interview. “It continues the story. It’s a mix of elements of cowboys on horseback, early automobiles, Prohibition. It’s a large-scale story with bold characters. ... Our present is perched on our past. Everything that we’re going through now has precedents in history. It helps to illuminate our present when we have a grasp on our past.”

Other programming for streaming includes the film “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe,” along with a reboot of the classic cartoon series; and “Teen Wolf the Movie,” a revival of the 1985 film that starred Michael J. Fox.

The current iteration of MTV Entertainment Studios launched in 2019, when McCarthy added Comedy Central, TV Land, Paramount Network and the Smithsonian Channel to his portfolio. He already oversaw MTV, VH1 and CMT. The restructuring came amid the recombination of Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. to create ViacomCBS.

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Paramount Global is trying to compete in the increasingly crowded streaming video business with Paramount+, which has nearly 40 million subscribers after adding 6.8 million in the most recent quarter. The company also has Pluto TV, its free streamer that makes money through advertising. Paramount Global’s stock rose 15% to $32.32 Tuesday after Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired 69 million shares of the company. The shares are still down 19% from a year ago.

As the upfronts take place in-person this year for the first time since 2019, Wall Street has been raising questions about the future of both streaming and traditional linear TV. Cable bundle subscriptions are on the decline, but the recent stumbles of Netflix have caused competitors to rethink how they approach the subscription streaming market. Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers in its most recent quarter, causing its shares to tank.

Most of the major streaming services now either have an advertising tier or are planning one to grow subscribers and increase revenue. Both Netflix and Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+ are creating cheaper ad-supported tiers.

There have been persistent doubts that Paramount has the firepower to compete against the giants. But McCarthy argues that Paramount is ahead of the curve with Paramount+, which has a $10-a-month ad-free tier and a $5-a-month version with commercials, and Pluto TV.

“In six months or even a year from today, I think people will really take a step back and say, ‘You know, what Paramount has is actually really unique,’” McCarthy said. “In many ways, it’s what a lot of streaming-only companies are rushing to create.”

The Times spoke with McCarthy ahead of Paramount’s upfront presentation.

Los Angeles Times: The MTV brand for years has been best known for unscripted shows. After the success of “Yellowstone” and the prequel “1883,” why double down on this part of the business, which is both expensive and risky?

McCarthy: Because it’s working and the audience demand is there. “Yellowstone” is the No. 1 scripted series in all of TV. “1883” was the No. 1 title across TV and film on Paramount+ for 2021, and as we look forward, we have incredible stories to tell, with A-list talent and unique and interesting worlds to build. We are maximizing the momentum we have going on and franchising in real time. There’s a fallacy that you can’t be premium and broad. All of our shows are incredibly premium, but they’re also big and broad.

It’s funny to say this, but “Beavis and Butt-Head” is an important series in the history of MTV, and clearly this new series is part of this 1990s revival trend that’s happening now. How are you bringing something like that back for modern audiences?

With “Beavis and Butt-Head,” it’s really a story about the genre itself. When you think about what launched adult animation into what it is today, it was really “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and “South Park.” We’ve always been wanting to do more with [creator] Mike Judge. The movie that we’re kicking it off with was originally in development at Paramount Pictures. We partnered with Paramount to bring it over to the TV side. It’s a great opportunity for us. This entire new generation is being raised by people who grew up on “Beavis and Butt-Head,” so there’s an awesome intergenerational play that’ll be happening.

Among the Paramount Network shows, there’s a lot of history, with “Black Wall Street,” “Waco” and “George and Tammy.” Is there a theme you’re going for?

Not necessarily through the lens of history but through the lens of subcultures, which is something we learned on the unscripted side. What set “Jersey Shore” apart from any other reality show? It was a subculture that people had a sense of but didn’t fully know.

This coming year will be the 20th anniversary of Waco. It’s really about a conspiracy, and here we are in the present day dealing with Jan. 6. That franchise, “American Tragedy,” will be an anthology that tackles a complicated moment in our history. Next season, you could easily see the FBI that’s in “The Waco Trials” moving over to take over the Oklahoma City bombing. With “George and Tammy,” we think this could be the first of many projects like this based on power players, but each series you may see it through a different famous couple’s eyes.

[Chastain, executive producer, said in a statement, “‘George & Tammy’ has been a passion project of mine for a very long time so we were thrilled when MTV Entertainment Studios, Charter, and 101 Studios came to the table to help bring that vision to life.”]

And after “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Jessica Chastain has really cornered the market on playing famous Tammys of history. How did the casting of Harrison Ford for “1932” happen?

Something like Harrison Ford doesn’t happen without a Taylor Sheridan. Taylor has a level of storytelling and creativity that attracts the best of the best. Harrison was one of the names on a wish list, and Taylor connected with him and talked about what he wanted to build and how unique it would be to think about this moment in time after the Great Depression. With Harrison and Helen Mirren, these are two actors that are still at the top of their game.

With everything that’s going on in streaming and with linear television declining, there’s a lot of concern that upfronts have lost some of their luster. What kind of market are you expecting?

One thing that doesn’t change is a hit, is a hit, is a hit and advertisers and talent want to be in hits.

With “Teen Wolf,” I imagine the sweet spot is something like “Cobra Kai,” where there’s nostalgia for the Gen Xers and millennials but it also appeals to the youngsters. Do teens today know what “Teen Wolf” is?

Current “Teen Wolf” fans will bring them in. The real reason why “Teen Wolf” is appealing to teens is because it’s about transformation. It really resonates with where they are in their lives. It’s about hidden identities and becoming who they really are going to be as humans. The stories will be universally appealing. The cast is all new fresh faces, but we’re excited. And we know there’s gonna be a lot of breakout stars out there.