Viacom Names Bob Bakish Permanent CEO As He Tries To Chart A Future Without CBS

Viacom’s Bob Bakish has one of the toughest jobs in media today as the company board officially took the word “acting” off the CEO title he picked up last month when he became the third person to have the gig in the past four months.

The decision follows Sumner and Shari Redstone’s announcement this morning that they want to scuttle the plan they’d proposed to merge Viacom with CBS — likely putting its CEO Les Moonves in charge of a combined company. Viacom says that it has “discontinued the exploration of a potential combination with CBS.”

“While there is much work to do, I firmly believe that Viacom has a bright future, and that confidence is underpinned by senior management’s commitment to innovation and a more coordinated, global approach to managing our brands,” Shari Redstone says following Bakish’s title change.

Board Chairman Tom May says the CEO “has impressed the Board of Directors with the decisive steps he has taken. He has moved quickly to deliver upon the mandate given to him – to maximize Viacom’s potential as a strong, growing and independent company.”

But many company watchers believe that Bakish stepped up because Moonves — and CBS’ independent investors — didn’t want to be stuck with problems that might be too hard for anyone to fix.

Viacom “always stood to be the main beneficiary from the reunification, given the additional affiliate negotiation clout and stability in leadership provided by CBS,” says Nomura Instinet’s Anthony DiClemente. Although “investors remain in a ‘show me’ mode,” he sees the Viacom’s stock price — already down more than 14% in 2016 — remaining “under pressure as investor focus shifts back to the company’s challenged domestic fundamentals.”

Wells Fargo Securities’ Marci Ryvicker says that “the underlying issue came down to value-we don’t know that either company was able to get to a valuation that made sense for their respective shareholders.”

The Redstones framed the change as a vote of confidence in Bakish. The letter from their National Amusements, which controls 80% of Viacom and CBS’ voting shares, praised his “forward-looking thinking and strategic plan” as a rationale for the new plan to let Viacom chart its own course.

Bakish helped his cause last week at an appearance at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference. He impressed attendees by coming across as frank about Viacom’s problems, and sufficiently optimistic about his ability to turn things around.

“Sure we have some issues,” he told the group. “But these are execution issues. It’s not curing cancer.”

True that — although they’re still daunting, which helps to explain why Viacom’s shares are down more than 9% so far today..

Viacom’s networks led by Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central appeal to young viewers who are turning away from pay TV — finding more to like from internet platforms, including social media, and video games. The number of households reached by the company’s top six networks fell 2.2% in the fiscal year that ended in September, following drops of 3.6% in 2015 and 2014.

And the company’s Paramount studio is coming off of one of the worst years in its recent history. It saw disappointing results to sequels to what appeared to be some of its most popular franchises including Star Trek Beyond (which has grossed 30% less than its predecessor at worldwide box offices so far), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (down 57%), and Zoolander 2 (down 36%), and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (down 27%).

Many believe Paramount needs help, possibly from a deep-pocketed partner, so it can invest in the quality and quantity of films it will need to get back on track.

On top of the operational struggles, Viacom shoulders $11.9 billion in debt. Ratings agencies classify it as just one step above what they deem as speculative — or, colloquially, junk — status.

The company has already put its stock buybacks on pause and cut its dividend in half. Brean Capital’s Alan Gould says he believes “the next move will likely be a debt downgrade to below investment grade.” That “should lead to higher interest expense, lower earnings and a lower stock price.”

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