UPDATED at 1:15PM PT with closing price. As word circulated that the CBS board is reportedly negotiating a potential exit package for CEO Les Moonves — a scenario that was until recently unimaginable — investors appeared to bet on the upside of his departure.
Shares in CBS rose more than 3% on nearly triple their normal trading volume. At $54.63 a share, they are at the highest level since the New Yorker ran its damaging article on Moonves in late July, detailing allegations of sexual misconduct by several women.
Numerous media outlets have reported that the board is discussing a severance package for Moonves, with COO Joseph Ianniello ready to take over as interim chief. CNBC pegging the value at about $100 million in stock, but other indications are that it could wind up north of the $180 million stipulated in Moonves’ contract. The severance would be payable only if the company’s investigations determine the CEO’s conduct merits his dismissal. The probes being handled by two separate law firms are still ongoing — and we’re hearing that the discussions about the exit package are still in flux, with everything depending on the law firms’ findings.
As Deadline was the first to report on Wednesday, National Amusements and CBS are also holding settlement talks in their long-running legal clash. Moonves and the management question are a major theme in that dispute as well, so the talks on both are unfolding along parallel tracks. Moonves had been insisting on having his No. 2, Ianniello, installed as the second in command in a CBS-Viacom combination. Shari Redstone, who runs NAI, had preferred Viacom CEO Bob Bakish. NAI has about 80% voting control of both CBS and Viacom — a level of control being challenged by CBS in court.
Viacom’s stock fell a fraction today, at around $29.26 a share. Stocks in general had a mixed day, with the Nasdaq continuing its negative trend, dropping nearly 1%, with the Dow 30 up nearly 21 points and the S&P 500 slightly in the red.
Analysts have pointed out in recent weeks that Moonves is arguably more essential to CBS than any other CEO is to a media company. But the surge in the company’s stock also indicates restless investors may be ready to move on.
If the board ends up parting ways with Moonves, it could curtail a hangover that could otherwise linger through the fall and beyond. CBS and NAI are scheduled to go to trial in Delaware in October in their dueling lawsuits. A decision on Moonves, though, could alter that timeline or make the legal dust-up obsolete. What happens from there — a long-gestating reunion of CBS and Viacom; a merger with another entity; business as usual — is not completely certain.
Veteran media analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson published a blog post sizing up the latest wave of news. He called it a “mixed outcome for CBS investors,” with continued overhang from the likelihood of a re-teaming with Viacom, which has rebounded a bit in recent quarters but remains less than its former self. Plus, he argues, the arranged marriage would not unlock the same value as another M&A transaction initiated in a completely open market.
Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG, drew an analogy apt to send a shiver down the spine of any media investor, to the end of the Philippe Dauman era at Viacom. “Moonves, like Dauman, has simply been delaying the inevitable,” Greenfield wrote in a report. “While his ego may enjoy remaining CBS chairman and CEO, the situation has been toxic for CBS shareholders and is damaging CBS’ long-term prospects/strategy.”