HBO Max parent company Warner Bros. Discovery is suing Paramount Global over the streaming rights for its long-running Comedy Central series “South Park.” The lawsuit is related to a 2019 licensing agreement between the two giants, which was brokered for more than $500 million.
According to the suit, which was filed in New York’s Supreme Court on Friday, WBD alleges that Paramount reneged on parts of the deal, breaching the agreed-upon contract by maneuvering the animated show’s new content (which it deems more valuable than its library) onto its own streamer Paramount+.
“We believe that Paramount and South Park Digital Studios embarked on a multi-year scheme of unfair trade practices and deception, flagrantly and repeatedly breaching our contract, which clearly gave HBO Max exclusive streaming rights to the existing library and new content from the popular animated comedy ‘South Park,” HBO Max said in a statement to TheWrap.
Warner Bros. Discovery claims that Paramount’s priorities “changed drastically” upon the launch of Paramount+ in 2021, resulting in a “multi-year scheme to unfairly take advantage” of the former conglomerate by breaching its agreement and “stealing its content.”
Per the 2019 agreement, where Warner/HBO outbid others in a highly competitive situation to garner the exclusive rights to the series, the company acquired the series’ entire catalog (23 seasons at the time) in addition to three new installments, totaling more than 300 episodes. Based on the representations made in the deal, WBD alleges that Paramount Global promised exclusivity in hosting all 333 episodes — the 303 existing at the time, in addition to the 30 that would be added across the three new seasons — and that sharing rights was a “non-starter.”
However, as a result of the pandemic, Paramount delayed filming on Season 24, instead producing two nearly hour-long COVID-themed specials that released initially on Comedy Central and were later put on HBO Max. Because of the specials’ longer runtime, WBD paid double the typical single-episode rate. The company says it did not receive Season 24 episodes despite the entry of a new deal in 2021 between the show’s creators and Paramount subsidiary MTV worth $900 million to produce 14 original movies for Paramount+. At the time, the series was also renewed through Season 30.
South Park Digital Studios, Paramount and MTV, WBD alleges, “engaged in a campaign of verbal trickery designed to circumvent” the original agreement, using “grammatical sleight-of-hand” to characterize the new content as “movies,” “films” or “events” instead of episodes. The company claims that the titles are identical to the pandemic-related specials it had licensed from Paramount. As a result, WBD estimates that it is owed damages worth “hundreds of millions.”
“We believe these claims are without merit and look forward to demonstrating so through the legal process,” a Paramount Global spokesperson said in a statement. “We also note that Paramount continues to adhere to the parties’ contract by delivering new ‘South Park’ episodes to HBO Max, despite the fact that Warner Bros. Discovery has failed and refused to pay license fees that it owes to Paramount for episodes that have already been delivered, and which HBO Max continues to stream.”
Later on, WBD said Paramount reversed course to brand the Pandemic Specials as the first four episodes that comprised part of Season 24, saying that the remaining six installments would come at a later date. In 2022, however, Paramount then branded Season 24 as consisting of only those two programs, also stating that the next season would only contain six episodes, which WBD says is a violation of the 10-episode-per-season guarantee per the agreement.
Because of the decreased number of episodes, WBD said it was led to “significantly overpay” for the licensing deal as Paramount diverted content to bolster its fledgling subscriber base for the newly minted Paramount+.
Now in its 26th season, the Emmy-winning “South Park” has cemented its status as the longest-running scripted cable series. Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the darkly humorous and profanity-laden show has remained a ratings staple and audience favorite in the animated space throughout the years, earning 18 Emmy nominations and winning five.
Variety was first to report the news.