Seeking More Control Of Its Streaming Destiny, ViacomCBS Won’t Sell Off “Critical Mass” Of Its Content, CEO Bob Bakish Asserts

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish Shutterstock

Although ViacomCBS will “selectively” sell its content to third parties, as seen in recent deals with HBO Max for South Park or Peacock for Yellowstone, CEO Bob Bakish says such moves could soon become more rare.

“At this point, we will not license critical mass of any of our key programming areas — areas like sci-fi, kids or procedurals — to any single player,” Bakish said in an appearance Tuesday at the Credit Suisse Virtual Communications Conference. “We will prioritize franchise IP to our owned and operated platforms.”

The company is planning to launch what Bakish called a “super-service,” an expanded version of subscription streaming outlet CBS All Access that will have a “preview launch” this summer ahead of a full debut in 2021. All Access, which launched in 2015, already has 15,000 hours of film and TV programming and will add 15,000 more hours from across the ViacomCBS stable, Bakish said.

Eyebrows have been raised in media circles as ViacomCBS has reached licensing deals with Netflix and others at a time when Disney, WarnerMedia and, to a lesser extent, NBCUniversal are leaning in the opposite direction. With investment in streaming continuing to surge, licensing does bring in sizable revenue and, as Bakish pointed out, ViacomCBS still owns the IP of shows like South Park. Still, many media vets are more skeptical about licensing now that it is clear that it fueled the rise of Netflix, which still enjoys a large lead over rivals, certainly in the U.S.

Streaming in general has become a brisk business for ViacomCBS, Bakish said. In 2019, ViacomCBS generated about $1.6 billion in digital and streaming revenue, with 13.5 million subscribers between CBS All Access and Showtime. Pluto TV, meanwhile, has more than doubled its user base over the past 18 months, with more than 24 million active monthly users.

While the company only discloses official streaming numbers when it reports quarterly results, Bakish said trends in April and May have continued the momentum from the quarter ending in March. Despite the cancellation of the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament due to COVID-19, the company still managed to gain a record number of new subscribers in the January-to-March quarter. Pluto, a leading ad-supported streaming platform acquired in early 2019, has been a driver of “strong conversions” of free trials to paid subscriptions, the CEO said.

While streaming has thus far mostly been a domestic story, Pluto is pushing into Europe and Latin America and Bakish said international streaming represents a “big opportunity” based on pre-existing global assets. Viacom and CBS, before they formally merged last December, each had been aggressive in circulating their programming around the world. Bakish oversaw the rise of Viacom’s international capabilities before becoming CEO in 2015. He said ViacomCBS would roll out a “broad pay streaming product in multiple markets” internationally over the next 12 months.

In addition to streaming, Bakish also hit on a subject being closely watched by many investors and certainly everyone in TV business: advertising. While COVID-19 has created adverse conditions, especially given the absence of sports and studio production since March, scatter prices in the second quarter remained above upfront prices and scatter in the first two weeks of June has come in “multiples above” previous June scatter markets.

The shape and timing of the upfront are a work in progress, Bakish conceded. He said sales teams at ViacomCBS plan to stay patient and nimble and be ready to respond as ad buyers start to ease back into marketing. Buyers unwilling or unable to commit up front “will pay a premium” for scatter ads, which could provide “incentive to transact,” he said.

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