ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish On Licensing Content (“We Can’t Keep All That For Ourselves”), The Upfront & Production Ramp

By Jill Goldsmith, Dade Hayes

Lemar Griffin

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish Friday defended a strategy of licensing popular content to outside platforms even as it prepares to roll out streaming service Paramount+ in a fiercely competitive market.

The company inked of series of lucrative licensing deals with Netflix and Amazon as well as WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal in 2019 and 2020 as an influx of well-funded streaming rivals hit the market – rivals, Disney in particular, that are aggressive in clawing back streaming rights or withholding titles from third parties. As a result, some of the most-viewed shows on HBO Max and Peacock in the early going, South Park and Yellowstone, come from ViacomCBS.

Bakish and new CFO Naveen Chopra reiterated on a post-earnings call today with analysts — who continue to question the strategy — that they make scrupulous analytical decisions on each property – balancing profits from selling versus keeping rights.

“Content licensing is an important business but … our strategy is clearly evolving, particularly with Paramount+,” Bakish said. The company has a library of 4,000 films, 140,000 TV episodes and current production of 150 series globally. “We can’t keep all that for ourselves. It doesn’t make sense. It’s too much,” he said.

There is strong demand from third parties. Besides injecting cash, licensing can extend and expand audiences, he said, noting that rights always revert back to ViacomCBS.

Bakish described upcoming Paramount+ as “sports, news and a mountain of entertainment.” It’s an extension of CBS All Access and the digital team, newly consolidated under Pluto TV chief Tom Ryan, has been adding content, rolling out new features like customer profiles and enhanced recommendation, and planning a marketing boost to support the launch early next year. ViacomCBS will also start “sunsetting” MTV Hits and some of the company’s smaller legacy streaming services.

Bakish ticked off new originals already reported including The Offer, a scripted limited series about the making of The Godfather; a new edition of MTV’s Behind the Music; true crime docuseries The Real Criminal Minds based on the CBS series; Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years; and spy drama Lioness from Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan. He suggested the platform could also tap MTV’s The Challenge and Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise for follows.

Chopra, who hails from Amazon and Pandora and started in August, said he considers original content “a powerful audience magnet on both our own and third party platforms [and] regardless of where it is distributed, a tremendous asset that we can optimally allocate to support our overall strategy.” Referring to the hefty second-quarter windfall from the South Park domestic licensing he said, “Going forward, we do not expect to replicate a deal of this size and nature in 2021.”

Asked about the state of upfront advertising, Bakish said the company ended up gaining low-single-digits in terms of pricing.

“Doing an upfront — a virtual upfront, in fact — in the middle of COVID-19 was something that no one had ever experienced before,” Bakish said. “But I’m really happy with where we ended up.”

In terms of advertising volume, another key metric, Bakish said the company has been “very careful… holding back inventory so that we have inventory to sell in scatter.” The scatter market is seeing “historically high” premiums compared with the upfront, above levels before COVID-19.

Bakish called production companywide “almost back to normal volume.” He said cable is “95%” up, CBSs has all series in production, Showtime is back up in production on almost all of its series, and film is ramping and expects to be at full production in 2021. Originals for Paramount+ are on track. The last quarter in particular saw a big jump.

Chopra declined to comment on the timing of asset sales following the divestiture of CNET earlier this year. Simon & Schuster and CBS’ historic headquarters Black Rock remain on the block. The publisher’s revenue rose 20% last quarter on bestselling title Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary Trump and Rage by Bob Woodward. It’s still not core, but it’s “a very valuable asset,” Chopra said.

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