Viacom Chief Bob Bakish Touts U.S. Ad Growth, Pluto TV, Declares Paramount’s “Turnaround Phase Is Behind Us”

Bob Bakish Viacom

The name Bob Bakish and the word “swagger” do not usually go in the same sentence, but the Viacom CEO got to take a genuine victory lap on Thursday’s conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The company released third-quarter results that topped Wall Street expectations, along with an accomplishment that Bakish termed a “major milestone”: growth in domestic advertising revenue. The 6% uptick was the first in five years, and it signaled that Viacom has finally emerged from the swamp it found itself in during the latter part of Philippe Dauman’s tenure as CEO.

Lawsuits, family dysfunction and withering asset values were the hallmarks of the company in those years, but Viacom now is officially alive and kicking, just in time for the expected reunification with CBS. Bakish is said to be in line to take the helm of the combined company, though there was no talk of the merger on the Viacom call, nor will there likely be Thursday afternoon when CBS reports its results.

“If you go back three or four years, we had a lot of near-term revitalization work we had to do,” Bakish acknowledged on the call. He said the quarterly ad growth “ushers in a new era” for the company’s operations, conceding, “There was some skepticism in the market when we said we would return to growth.”

The upfront market also yielded strong results, with high single- to double-digit price increases, which Viacom called the highest rate of change in more than a decade. Pluto TV, which Viacom acquired for $340 million in January, reported 18 million monthly active users as of the end of July, up 50% from the 12 million it claimed when the acquisition was announced.

Paramount Pictures has also rebounded, thanks in large part to a thriving TV production business. At the studio, Bakish said, “The turnaround phase is behind us and we’re entering into a new phase of growth and vitality.” The studio “has incredible value to Viacom and to the marketplace at large,” he added, noting the company regularly gets “inbound interest” in the studio’s pay-one window, which is about to expire on Epix.

Asked about any issues at Paramount from the U.S.-China trade war, Bakish said there has been “no impact to date. We have some time for this to get sorted out. This is a high-stakes game these two countries are playing.”

Bakish fielded a question about the expected impact from the November launch of Disney+, whose family-friendly programming will appeal to a large chunk of Viacom’s audiences across Nickelodeon, MTV and elsewhere. “We’ve certainly had a lot of discussion on this,” he said, adding that the $7-a-month “pricing does look very competitive.”

That said, Bakish added that in his view the marketplace “is segmenting on price point,” with “movement across segments and bundling across segments.” With offerings from free and ad-supported streaming to lower-priced subscription to participation in large TV bundles, Viacom covers a gamut and will remain competitive even as several media rivals mount major streaming initiatives, Bakish maintained.

The strategy “is to play in all segments, from big bundles to free,” he said. “We feel good about that in the shifting landscape.”

“Virtually all” of Viacom’s pay-TV subscribers have been secured in multi-year deals, Bakish noted. That’s a distinct change from the Dauman years, when take-no-prisoners negotiating tactics provoked pay-TV distributors, some of whom walked away from Viacom. Suddenlink, a large cable operator now owned by Altice USA, did not carry Viacom networks for more than two years but returned after a Bakish-led process to reach a new carriage deal.

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