CBS’ CEO Search On Back Burner Amidst Push For New Viacom Merger Talks


EXCLUSIVE: A permanent replacement for Les Moonves may have to wait until CBS and Viacom become one company again.

The quest to find a full-time CEO has lost some of its intensity over the holidays as a consensus is emerging among CBS board members and power players to take a renewed look into melding the media outlet with its former parent company, I hear.

“It’s simply not as important now who runs CBS when you consider that a newly constructed leadership team will be required down the line if talks are successful,” one insider told Deadline of the impetus towards renewing merger discussions.

Joe Iannello

That may be good news as well as providing some additional leg room for acting CEO Joe Ianniello. If preliminary merger talks were to begin in the coming weeks, ex-CFO Ianniello is well positioned to put his financial expertise to use in settling terms and potentially shine in the process, I hear.

The former Moonves top lieutenant has generally received good marks from corporate America and Wall Street since taking over after Moonves resigned in September as more and more allegations of sexual misconduct became public.

Ex-Disney executive Tom Staggs, former Turner CEO John Martin and now departed CBS executives Nancy Tellem and Nina Tassler have also been mentioned as possible CEO choices in recent months. Showtime kingpin and recently appointed CBS chief creative officer David Nevins has seen his name bandied about too. For candidates inside and outside, CBS brought on executive search firm Korn Ferry last fall.

But despite Viacom CEO Bob Bakish’s assertion late last year that the company isn’t “focused on a big, transformational deal,” a merger is much more on the menu now than finding a new CBS boss.

While Shari Redstone and her family’s National Amusements holding company pledged last summer amid a struggle for corporate control to hold off for two years on pushing for any new Viacom deal, there is nothing to stop the recently reconfigured CBS board from instigating such a move. Board members are set to meet in the coming weeks with merger on the minds of many, sources close to the action confirm.

“This discussion has never really gone away despite the difficulties of last year,” another source says of talks between CBS and the home of Paramount Pictures, BET, Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. “Look at Disney and Fox, AT&T and Warner Bros — the marketplace realities demand we bulk up, so it’s all about finding the most strategic and successful outcome.”

CBS has a current market value of $18 billion and Viacom’s is nearly $12 billion – small numbers compared with Disney and AT&T.

Of course, not far from any outcome of merger talks and a possible bigger job is Viacom’s Bakish, who is close to Redstone. In fact, it was Moonves’ stubborn reluctance to give Bakish — who took over Viacom from short-term interim boss Tom Dooley in October 2016 — a significant position in any newly merged company that effectively kneecapped further negotiations last year.

Had he not been so cantankerous and set off the subsequent legal and board-room battles with the now victorious Redstone, Moonves seemed set to have been the CEO of a consolidated company. He even might have weathered the forthcoming scandals and allegations with her support – which he clearly lacked in the summer.

Both CBS and Viacom saw their stock prices rise modestly Tuesday along with the broader markets on a day that started with 95-year old Sumner Redstone ending the long and invasive legal battle with his ex-companion Manuela Herzer. The mogul’s settlement comes less than a week before a potentially messy trial was to start in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Most media and tech shares advanced on a day when the Dow and the Nasdaq both finished up 1%. Viacom shares gained 2% to $28.71, while CBS rose 1.5% to $48.37. Both stocks are toward the lower end of their 52-week ranges.

As its stock went up, CBS declined comment today on possible merger talks or the status of the CEO search.

Dade Hayes contributed to this report.

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