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Why Paramount+ is betting big on a 'SpongeBob Squarepants' movie

Paramount+ is clearly betting the children are its future. And that bet starts with one small, square, pants-wearing sponge.
He's here, he's square and he wants you to sign up for Paramount+.Paramount Animation

The streaming wars kicked off towards the end of 2019 with the double debut of Apple TV+ and Disney+, but the proliferation of subscriber-based mediums isn’t over. This year has already added Discovery+ on Jan. 4, which is now followed by yet another math-symbol: Paramount+. Unlike its predecessors, Paramount+ arrives touting not a dark prestige drama, but a film about a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea. “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is integral to the Paramount+ premiere, flanked by a few lesser-advertised offerings, including the first “SpongeBob SquarePants” spinoff and an MTV special “The Real World: Homecoming: New York.”

For those about to complain that they cannot handle yet another streaming service, there’s good news — well, sort of.

For those about to complain that they cannot handle yet another streaming service, there’s good news — well, sort of. Paramount+ isn’t a new streaming service, it’s the rebrand of an existing one, CBS All Access. Launched in 2014, CBS All Access was too ahead of its time; audiences weren’t ready to pay out monthly fees for programming from a single provider. It was also was hobbled by the struggle to reunite with Viacom, which brings its myriad of cable channel holdings and Paramount Pictures.

The company could have just added all of Viacom’s programming and film library to CBS All Access right away. By 2020, it had finally started making inroads with subscribers, mostly with “Star Trek” titles like “Picard.” But the success of Disney+ and the brand confusion of HBO Max pushed trends away from naming streamers after TV call signs in favor of the fancier movie studio brands. Restarting with a new name made sense — and allows the streaming network to begin again with a new focus, this time on Viacom holdings Nickelodeon and MTV.

Amid the pandemic, a new focus has emerged. Parents are desperate to keep their children entertained. One of the unspoken drivers of Disney+’s success is its promise of a walled garden – an app that will entertain your kid for hours without needing supervision. Netflix has also tacitly acknowledged the war for subscribers goes through parents with its ever-expanding “Netflix Family” section. HBO Max’s first big success came via family-friendly superhero film “Wonder Woman 1984,” and is planning to supplement its “Looney Tunes” and “Sesame Street” with even more kid-friendly titles. Even Apple TV+ is getting in on the act, scooping up the rights to the “Peanuts” holiday specials. But no one is better positioned to take on Disney+ than Viacom’s Nickelodeon and MTV.

As a flagship at launch, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is a perfectly acceptable two-hour edition of the original show. The plot will feel familiar, because it’s a direct retread of one of the show’s most famous episodes, “Have You Seen This Snail?” No, it doesn’t boldly go where no sponge has gone before, but that’s fine. It’s funny, expected, and overall, safe. That said, Paramount+ leading off with the “SpongeBob” movie is odd, because it’s not actually exclusive to the streamer. Families can watch “Sponge on the Run” through a variety of on-demand sources starting this weekend. Paramount+ clearly hopes families will sign up anyway, with the promise kids can watch the film (and the old show and the new spinoff series) over and over instead of renting it multiple times. MTV gives families with older kids something to watch as well.

However, “SpongeBob’s” non-exclusivity signals another problem for Paramount+. Even as late as last fall, Paramount was behaving like a company that provided content to others instead of making it for itself, selling the rights to “Coming 2 America” to Amazon, where it will exclusively debut just 24 hours after the Paramount+ launch. “Clarice,” which was developed by Alex Kurtzman with Paramount+’s arrival in mind, was moved by CBS to broadcast. Meanwhile, CBS’ most popular show, “Criminal Minds” is a Netflix staple and under contract to run exclusively on the more-established streamer for years. (Paramount TV titles also dominate Netflix’s slate, like “The Haunting of…” series, all of which now wear the “Netflix Original” tag and will never be recovered without serious payouts.)

Paramount+ is racing to catch up, with a recent presentation that promised everything from a “Fraiser” revival to a “Flashdance” follow up. But the biggest titles, again, will be for kids. “Rugrats,” “iCarly” and the first live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” are the top titles in the works. Even CBS All Access’ original all-“Star Trek” scheme has a kiddie version coming soon. But none of these are ready at launch, which will necessitate another Paramount+ grand opening later in the year. In practical terms, chances are the kids won’t notice much more than endless, green-slimed-themed marketing. Paramount+ is clearly betting the children are its future. And that bet starts with one small, square, pants-wearing sponge.