Viacom CEO Bob Bakish Doesn’t Weigh In On CBS-Shari Redstone Drama, Touts Comeback Strategy Instead

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish spent an hour discussing the company’s comeback-kid story without weighing in on the elephant in the room: the big, public brawl between CBS and Shari Redstone.

CBS is seeking a temporary restraining order against Redstone and her family’s holding company, National Amusements, which owns controlling interest in CBS and Viacom. The network went to court Monday to prevent Redstone from interfering with the company’s board before it can consider a measure that would effectively lessen her control.

Veteran media analyst Michael Nathanson said, at the outset of his interview this morning with Bakish during the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit, that the Viacom executive wouldn’t be able to discuss the legal battle between its corporate sibling and Redstone, who has been a proponent of merging CBS and Viacom.

Bakish fell back on a greatest-hits medley of gains at Viacom since he took the reins of the troubled media company in 2016. He talked about his emphasis on strengthening the company’s flagship brands — MTV, BET, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and Paramount — by installing new management and investing more heavily in content.

There are early wins: MTV, under Chris McCarthy, is returning to the network’s roots in unscripted series (like Jersey Shore Family Vacation) and has seen 10 months of ratings gains, Bakish said. BET is up double-digits in the ratings, and Comedy Central is seeing progress as well.

Paramount Network, a rebranding of cable network Spike TV, is still a work in progress, Bakish said. The scripted series Waco has been “well received,” he said, and two more pieces of signature programming are on the way: American Woman starring Alicia Silverstone and Yellowstone with Kevin Costner.

A Quiet Place
Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures is the current star of Viacom’s turnaround story, with studio chief Jim Gianopulos leading a new management team to a major theatrical success with A Quiet Place, a $20 million horror-thriller that has brought in $270 million in worldwide box office. Bakish was upbeat about the prospects of forthcoming films Book Club, starring Jane Fonda and Diane Keatonand Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

“We have a killer management team and are seeing first-half profitability as a result of greater discipline, and you see the product that’s coming,” Bakish said. “I feel very confident in Paramount.”

Television has become a key driver of Paramount’s revenue, with a contribution for this fiscal year slated to be around $400 million, from zero just a few short years ago (CBS took television production when it split with Viacom in 2006). It already has logged hits with Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and TNT’s The Alienist, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan premieres on Amazon in August.

Bakish talked in detail about Viacom’s international business (which he headed for a decade) and the various initiatives to capitalize on next-generation platforms, from mobile devices to streaming services to social media offerings.

The newly constituted Viacom Digital Studios, led by AwesomenessTV’s Kelly Day, held its first NewFront presentation this year where it highlighted its work producing 600 hours of original programming for Viacom’s brands (like Cooking in the Crib with Snooki).

Bakish acknowledged that Viacom has yet to crack fast-growing over-the-top subscription services like Hulu, but he said its networks are available two major players, Sling and DirecTV Now, and has negotiated deals with established pay TV providers to be part of future over-the-top offerings.

The executive also threw in a plug for inexpensive streaming services like Philo that are stripped of pricey sports programming.

“I continue to believe there’s a real opportunity there,” Bakish said.

The biggest disappointment so far: The company’s stock price, which opened down about 2% this morning at $28.32.

“We are not yet seeing a financial appreciation of what we have done,” Bakish said.

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