The CBS corporate anthem featured many familiar notes, but the executive chorus performing it was dramatically different on the company’s first conference call with Wall Street analysts since the exit of Les Moonves.
Acting CEO Joe Ianniello was joined by two newly minted colleagues from the C-suite: Chief Creative Officer David Nevins and Chief Financial Officer Christina Spade, who both just got elevated from roles at Showtime. Nevins, who joined the company in 2010, had not appeared on any previous calls (in contrast to his premium network peers Chris Albrecht at Starz and Richard Plepler on several years of Time Warner earnings reports).
As they unpacked the strong third-quarter results and fielded questions about the company’s direction, they had a couple of un-Moonves-like moments of uncertainty but mostly stuck capably to the script. They also briefly diverted from the financials to offer a message about the workforce at the company. From the top down, CBS workers have had to cope with the accusations of sexual misconduct against Moonves, legal strife with controlling shareholder National Amusements and questions about a long-discussed merger with Viacom. Since Moonves left in early September, the executive changes have come one after the other, including Interim Chairman Dick Parsons being announced and then having to withdraw in October for health reasons.
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“Employees have kept their focus,” Ianniello said. The company’s reconfigured management team “has great experience and fresh ideas,” he added. “I am confident they will serve us well in the years to come.”
At one point during the investor call, influential media analyst Jessica Reif of Bank of America Merrill Lynch pointedly asked whether there would be further management changes following CBS’ executive suite shuffle.
“Um, look, we’ve certainly made some changes here at the company,” Ianniello responded. “Chris and David here have been with the company for several years. They are seasoned veterans. We have a talented and deep bench and I think we’ve demonstrated that. … I want to give them exposure to Wall Street so you can see how deep and talented they are.”
At one point, the newness of the executive team was in evidence. Asked about the local advertising revenue at the CBS-owned stations, Ianniello swept in to answer for CFO Christina Spade, remarking “let me take that” while the team joked about her coming up to speed two weeks after being elevated to her new role.
The call yielded few jaw-droppers in terms of the numbers, which tracked expectations and continued down a familiar path, and the subject of M&A did not come up at all in the hour-long conversation.
CBS again emphasized its streaming efforts. In the August call about second-quarter results, the company updated its guidance for subscription streaming, forecasting 8 million subscribers to CBS All Access and Showtime’s OTT service by 2019, doubling to 16 million by 2022. Ianniello on today’s call noted that those targets do not include international territories, even though Canada and Australia launches this year are expected to be followed by other countries.
Along with such new-fangled moneymaking, old-fashioned content monetization — selling CBS-owned programming to distributors around the world — is now a $4 billion annual business, more than 75% ahead of where it was in 2015. Ianniello credited digital platforms and skinny-bundle services.
Nevins was asked about the state of Showtime’s distribution agreements — especially in light of HBO’s impasse with Dish Network, the first in that premium network’s history — as well as his view on how to grow beyond current levels of 26 million domestic subscribers. “We have good relationships and great confidence in the quality and desirability of our programming so we take that into every negotiation,” he said.
In terms of growth, he said 26 million homes is still 22% of the pay-TV universe, not a stat to be sneezed at. Still, he said, “I see a lot of desire from where we sit. … We’re now accessible at multiple price points, so we become accessible to a different kind of consumer.”
The dilemma for programmers, as the HBO-Dish clash shows, is that the more they pursue the direct-to-consumer path, the more delicate the dealings get with their traditional distribution partners.
Nevins and Ianniello don’t see any reason for concern when it comes to CBS and Showtime. “The more we build the tech behind our own platforms the more optionality we have” in making deals, Nevins said.
One tricky area where Disney, WarnerMedia and others are pulling back is third-party licensing to streaming services like Hulu or Netflix. Ianniello noted that CBS owns about 80% of the lineup on the flagship broadcast network, so that shores up an important outlet, but as to other destinations for it, he said “it’s OK to sell content to third parties as well.” Analysis on a show-by-show basis will continue to drive those decisions, he said. “We don’t have one-size-fits-all like some of our competitors.”
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