Georgia Arnold already had more than 20 years of experience producing content, with a social impact focus, under her belt when she went to JC Acosta, head of ViacomCBS International Studios (VIS), and pitched the idea for a new content division.
Now, as the newly appointed head of VIS Social Impact, she has some big plans for building a team and creating programming that centers around global issues education.
At a top level, the new division that ViacomCBS officially launched last week has an initial remit to produce content that informs audiences about climate change, equity and global health.
There’s no specific plan for kids programming yet, but Arnold is seeking pitches aimed at all demos, and the unit will also work with experts in these social issue fields to ensure its output is accurate and authentic.
Based in London, Arnold has already greenlit a first project from photographer and activist Misan Harriman. Live-action documentary series Protest & Progress (three x 60 minutes) will be hosted by Harriman and teaches viewers about the history and value of protests. Paramount+ will premiere the show in late 2022.
Protest & Progress aims to be both entertaining and a vehicle for social change, and Arnold says it represents a template for the type of content VIS Social Change wants to make, with its international perspective, exciting subject matter and focus on illustrating that people have a voice they can use to enact change.
“The basis of how we’re setting up the division is to create really good entertaining content, but it’s content that has impact at the end of the day,” she says. “The people we want to work with are going to have diverse voices and interesting lived experiences that we want to take onto the screen.”
Arnold adds that the studio is also in the process of inking first-look deals with creators, with an eye towards elevating underrepresented voices and giving them a global platform. “There are so many stories to tell, and I’m really hoping to shine a light on different voices that maybe couldn’t get a platform outside their country,” she says.
A big part of Arnold’s remit right now is to build a team that can make and deliver this content. So far, very few people work at VIS Social Impact, including creative director Richard Warburton (who serves in the same role at the MTV Staying Alive Foundation).
Most of her talent-building efforts are currently focused on the division’s writers rooms, which non-binary writer Thishiwe Ziqubu (Shuga) has been appointed to oversee. Together, Ziqubu and Arnold are looking to hire transgender, gender-queer and non-binary writers to bring a new perspective to ViacomCBS’s content.
Arnold has a long history of social impact work at ViacomCBS. She first joined MTV in the ’90s as an assistant, and at the time, she was asked to select a global issue that was relevant to an older teen audience in order to help the music network build its reach. She landed on HIV awareness and prevention, and subsequently created the 1998 documentary MTV Staying Alive.
In 2005, Arnold founded The MTV Staying Alive Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches teens about HIV, sexual and reproductive health, and gender-based violence through content. Serving as the foundation’s executive director, she also exec produces its drama series Shuga (77 x 30 minutes), which teaches a group of young people struggling through growing up about safe sex and empowerment.
Coupled with her work as ViacomCBS’s SVP of social responsibility, a role she’s held since 2010, making Shuga has given Arnold the skills and experience needed for creating projects that will have an impact and resonate with viewers, she says.
“When you’re making content with a purpose, the most important thing you can do is have your audience tune in,” she says. “It might be the most important documentary out there, but if no one is watching it, you’re never going to change the world or see any impact.”