ViacomCBS Ushers In New Era With Town Hall, Nasdaq Opening Bell Ring – Update


UPDATED with closing stock price. ViacomCBS marked its first day as a merged company with a celebrity-studded appearance on the floor of the Nasdaq Market Site in New York’s Times Square and a town hall meeting overflowing with optimism.

CEO Bob Bakish and chairman Shari Redstone smiled and clapped alongside Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Gayle King, a SpongeBob SquarePants mascot and other talent as confetti rained down and they rang the opening bell.

While shares in ViacomCBS initially rose a fraction, they soon slipped into the red. After regaining almost all of the ground they lost during the session, they closed at $40.86, down just a fraction.

The company has one of the lowest price-to-earnings ratios of any company in the S&P 500, which makes it attractive to many investors looking to steer clear of tech companies and others with high P/Es (and, to some, too much risk). But the stock action of late hasn’t indicated a clear vote of confidence from investors. Shares in CBS and Viacom had each retreated about 15% from the time when the long-gestating merger finally was announced last August and their final day of trading on Wednesday.

Stock movement didn’t dim the enthusiasm of the overflow crowd at the town hall at Viacom’s New York headquarters, which was essentially a very special edition of Bakish’s quarterly “Bob Live” employee talks. He emphasized several themes from the edition in August, which followed closely on the heels of the announcement of the merger, which brought the companies back together for the first time in 13 years. (Redstone runs National Amusements, which owned about 80% of Viacom and CBS and worked for years to make the merger happen.)

Several workers told Deadline that the town hall, which was live-streamed to employees around the world, featured Bakish and Redstone speaking. CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell served as moderator, and some senior-level executives previously more aligned with CBS were in the room. None of the Q&A portion, employees said, created an uncomfortable atmosphere as has been the case with the Disney-Fox and AT&T-Time Warner deals. Layoffs never came up as a topic — in part because the “synergies” targeted by ViacomCBS won’t involve letting go of thousands. Execs have said they will achieve $500 million in cost savings by 2021, a fraction of the numbers for other combining entities.

On that same synergy front, one focus of the town hall was the mission to unlock opportunities by collaborating more closely across the many parts of the combined company. “There was a reel they played at the beginning that just showed all of the talent at this company across all of its divisions, and it got everybody pretty excited,” one insider said. Similar to the optics of the bell-ring, the main focus of the town hall was about letting parts of the company intermingle. It’s being clearly communicated to the rank and file that the bar for working together has been set much higher than it was the time the companies were previously under the same corporate tent, from 2000 to 2006.

While there were no awkward moments, one attendee came away without a lot of specifics, which is perhaps not unexpected on Day 1. “They just kept repeating ‘content’ and ‘culture’ over and over,” the person said.

The timing of the new company’s first day Thursday coincided with the date of the annual CBS holiday party in New York, always a buzzy gathering for media types in the city. The event has moved to a restaurant on 57th Street for the past two editions, after many years as a clubby affair held on the executive floor of “Black Rock,” as the CBS Corp. building in Midtown Manhattan is known.

Last year’s party followed a stunning sequence in the latter months of 2018 that saw longtime CEO Les Moonves ousted and a major restructuring reshaping the company. As the remaking of CBS unfolded under acting CEO Joe Ianniello, a third round of serious merger talks grew more serious as 2019 wound along, reaching fruition by late summer.

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