Few programs still court controversy the way that “South Park” does. The long-running Comedy Central program has stirred up political, religious, and social debate on many occasions, and now its stirring up legal ones. Warner Bros. Discovery filed suit against Paramount Global, regarding streaming rights to the cartoon. In a not too surprising twist, Paramount has fired back with their own lawsuit, and there’s no “Chewbacca Defense” in sight for either party.
In February, Warner Bros. Discovery sued Paramount Global claiming they had violated the terms of the contract for streaming “South Park.” The countersuit from Paramount seeks $50 million in unpaid licensing fees that were supposed to be collected regularly as part of the agreement for HBO Max to have exclusive streaming rights to the animated comedy. It’s a complicated fight that almost comically comes down to semantics .
Just to recap things to get everyone up to speed, “South Park” is a still, hugely in demand property. HBO Max payed $500 million in 2019 for the streaming rights for all episodes, in addition to three future seasons. At the time, Paramount+ wasn’t what it is now. It was still branded as CBS All Access, and was trying to find footing in the crowded streaming pool. When it sold the streaming rights to “South Park” to Warner Bros. Discovery (then just Warner Bros.) for HBO Max, it didn’t seem like a really big deal.
Paramount Global found a loophole, so that they could make original “South Park” content, air it on Paramount+, and still keep the $500 million from the HBO Max deal. The contract they signed with Warner Bros. Discovery pertained only to episodes and not to movies or specials, which is exactly what Paramount+ has branded their “South Park” programs, like “South Park: Post COVID.” Additionally, Paramount seems to be deliberately shortchanging HBO Max on future episodes, as the three seasons that HBO Max received have only added up to 14 episodes total with two episodes, in Season 24, and six in Season 25 and 26. Keep in mind that seasons 17 – 23 have all had 10 episodes a piece.
The countersuit by Paramount is almost comical in a litigious way, essentially telling Warner Bros. Discovery that it has inarguably followed through with the contract as it was written. The specials that they’ve aired on Paramount+ do not count as episodes and as for the number of episodes in a season, they claim that the contract never specifies how many episodes those seasons are supposed to consist of. Which, if that’s true and Warner Bros. Discovery signed off on a three season deal and only assumed they’d be the standard 10 episodes each, would be an astounding oversight.
So, if Paramount is following the rules of the contract, as explicitly written, they insist that Warner Bros. Discovery has no right to continue withholding payments and they request a declaratory judgment in their favor. What it will come down to though is a legal debate over the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the contract. That is to say, is the contract valid at face value, or do Paramount’s actions violate the understanding of what the contract was meant to be. The specials vs episodes part of the battle could arguably go in favor of Warner Bros. Discovery, since the difference between a “special” and an “episode” is a bit vague. But that argument about how many episodes in a season? Unless that’s specifically stated in the contract, that’s going to be a lot harder for Warner Bros. Discovery to win. Time to get that “Chewbacca Defense” ready because “THAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE! If Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit!”