ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Warner Bros. to Paramount: Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home!

I learned from OCU 1L Austin Manley that the South Park guys seem to have sold exclusive rights to their show twice.  Well, maybe not.  It's a matter of interpretation. 

KennyMcCormickAs Gene Maddaus reports in Variety (complaint at the bottom of the story), HBO's parent company, Warnermedia Direct is suing Paramount and others for breach of a 2019 deal in which HBO claims it won an intense bidding war by offering  $500 million for an exclusive license to stream episodes of the South Park animated television series, including three seasons' worth of new episodes.  It's a nifty little contract interpretation/good faith issue, because while HBO has the exclusive right to stream episodes of the regular South Park series, Paramount is claiming to have retained the rights to stream specials and other content.  HBO is screaming, "You bastards!"

But it gets worse: HBO claims it was promised at least ten episodes per season, but it has gotten only only eight, with six more slated for the third promised season, giving HBO a total of only fourteen of at least thirty promised episodes.  Because new episodes are far more valuable than the library of old episodes, HBO claims, what it got is worth far less than the $500 million it paid.

Sidebar: really?  I mean, yes, usually, I would be far more interested in new episodes than old episodes, but I haven't watched South Park in over a decade.  Have I missed anything?  Recently I warned my students that because nobody comes to my office hours, they should probably send me an e-mail to let me know they are coming.  Otherwise, I forget that I'm holding office hours, pull a Towelie, and just wander off.    Crickets.  According to the Complaint, "South Park is premium content and a top performer, especially with the highly prized 18-34 audience that is dedicated to the show and engages in repeated viewing."  My students don't even know who Towelie is.  So if old fans of the show (me) aren't watching the show, and my students are not watching the show, why are new episodes valuable? My students are within the 18-34 target audience, and either they are not watching the show or they are gaslighting me.  And if I were willing to shell out money for HBO Max, I would be far more likely to watch old episodes than new.  I have access to all 3,759 seasons of The Simpsons, but I'm mostly interested in Seasons 2-5.

Parker & Stone
Image by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 

But wait, there's still more.  Paramount, through its subsidiary MTV, has announced a $900 million deal with the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (above)for exclusive South Park content to run on Paramount +.   Why can't stuff just be on TV like it used to be?  The new content is not "episodes" Paramount maintains; it is "movies," "films" (is that just movies shot in black and white?), and "events"?   Indeed, according to the Complaint, Paramount has acknowledged that South Park content is at the heart of its strategy to develop Paramount +.   

According to the Complaint, Paramount and its joint venture with Parker and Stone informed HBO that it could not make new seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic.  But during that same pandemic, it produced two South Park 50-minute specials that aired on Comedy Central, a Paramount subsidiary.  Two recent "supersized" specials aired on Paramount + with the seemingly self-referential titles The Streaming Wars and The Streaming Wars, Part 2.  The whole thing is so over-the-top, convoluted, and at least based on the Complaint so obviously wrongful, it reads like a plot from a South Park episode.  No wait, this is too big for an episode -- a South Park movie.

The Complaint alleges causes of action for breach of contract and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, statutory claims, tortious interference, and unjust enrichment.  It seeks not only damages for breach of contract, but also disgorgement and punitive damages.  Expect counterclaims alleging that HBO has failed to pay the licensing fees.

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