CBS Suspends CEO Search, Extends Acting Chief Joe Ianniello Through December

By Denise Petski, Dade Hayes, Dominic Patten

Joe Ianniello
Joe Ianniello, former ViacomCBS acting CEO Courtesy of CBS

CBS has called off its search for a permanent CEO, at least through the end of this year.

Joe Ianniello has agreed to an extension of his role as president and acting CEO for six additional months through December 31, and the CBS board has suspended the search after identifying a small group of finalists. The timing of the extension is opportune for CBS given the approaching upfront pitch to advertisers and the annual shareholder meeting, with both May events high-visibility showcases for the company.

The official announcement called the move “a testament to the accomplishments achieved by Ianniello” since he took the reins last September as the Les Moonves debacle rocked the company. Moonves departed after a long run at the company and as one of the most powerful executives in media after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault and harassment. As the longtime right-hand man of Moonves in the corporate suite, Ianniello has spent 22 years at the company, four of them as CFO. He engineered many of the retransmission and distribution deals that have kept CBS on a smooth financial track, especially as it pushes deeper into streaming.

While Ianniello lacked corner-office experience when he took the interim job and faced a formidable rebuilding task as well as the need to minister to the morale of the company and reassure partners across the board, he has earned high marks from Wall Street. That has made him a strong contender for the permanent CEO title despite a close association with Moonves, which could be considered an automatic handicap despite the lack of any direct personal implication in the Moonves scandal.

Investors initially shrugged at the news, with shares in CBS unchanged after hours. They moved fractionally higher during the regular trading day, closing at $51.34. That’s nearly $5 below where they were last September during the changing of the guard.

In a statement, CBS’ Board of Directors said: “Joe has demonstrated exceptional leadership during this time of unprecedented transition at CBS. He steadied the ship with some key appointments and a commitment to cultural change, and steered it forward by focusing CBS’ operations around its growing direct-to-consumer strategy. We are very pleased to recognize Joe’s talents and efforts with this extension, and we look forward to all that he’ll continue to do to build on CBS’ remarkable momentum.”

The CEO news also comes amid intensifying merger speculation about CBS and Viacom, who share a common controlling shareholder, National Amusements. Preliminary talks have been initiated, sources have indicated to Deadline, though they are not at a formal stage.

Under the terms of a legal settlement reached between National Amusements and CBS last fall, NAI is not allowed to launch any discussions, though the individual companies could initiate on their own. With AT&T gobbling up Time Warner and Disney grabbing most of Fox and tech giants continuing to throw considerable weight around, the sense for some time has been that both CBS and Viacom need more scale to survive. The two companies were under the same corporate roof from 2000 to 2006.

Ianniello has played a significant role in the merger discussions, two rounds of which yielded no deal. In negotiations with Moonves, NAI chief Shari Redstone favored Viacom CEO Bob Bakish for a top leadership position, with Moonves slated to run the combined company. Moonves, meanwhile, insisted that Ianniello had to have a senior role.

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