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At Viacom, Bob Bakish Enjoys Swift Rise

Variety logo Variety 12/12/2016 Brian Steinberg
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Among media-industry watchers, Bob Bakish’s name hasn’t been the first to roll off the tongue in discussions about the sector’s various moguls. That dynamic seems likely to change.

Bakish, who has led the international operations of media conglomerate Viacom for the last several years, was named the company’s acting chief executive and president in late October. In a meeting of the company’s board of directors slated to take place later on Monday, his interim status could be dropped, according to a person familiar with the situation. The executive has impressed Shari Redstone, who leads the decision-making of National Amusements Inc. the controlling shareholder of both Viacom and CBS, this person said.

A Viacom spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a query seeking an interview with Bakish.

In recent remarks, Bakish has articulated a strategy that involves reviving the fortunes of MTV, Comedy Central and the Paramount movie studio. To accomplish this, he wants to use what he’s learned expanding Viacom brands in overseas markets. The company doesn’t rely overmuch on any one particular TV brand, and makes efforts to tailor each network to the specific region or country in which it operates. “We have 2,700 hours of original programming planned for 2017 and much of that consists of highly exportable formats with modest cost per episode,” Bakish said during a recent talk with investors.” And we’ve built an organization that is interconnected across brands, businesses and geographies while fostering a culture that prides itself on entrepreneurship, innovation and adaptability.”

Bakish has told investors he intends to spur a turnaround of MTV, arguably Viacom’s best known asset, as well as Comedy Central and the company’s Paramount movie studio. These operations have fallen on tough times. The young viewers who from the base of both cable networks are migrating to new digital-viewing behaviors that are harder to monetize, and Paramount has slumped noticeably amid a sea of tepid-received releases, including sequels to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and the Ben Stiller vehicle “Zoolander.”

Indeed, Bakish faces the same challenges his predecessors, Philippe Dauman and Tom Dooley, did – and it’s not immediately clear he can do what they could not in significant enough fashion to right the company’s slumping stock. Viacom has been hit hard by the rise of digital media, which has destabilized the businesses on which it heavily depends: advertising and cable distribution. MTV is on its third top executive in less than two years, and Comedy Central has seen the power of its late-night lineup dissipate in the wake of the departures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“I will seek more collaborative and forward-thinking partnerships with our long-standing domestic distributors. And I will also be working closely with Paramount,” Bakish said recently, adding: “I will make sure we have a structure that supports speed, sharing of resources and a global outlook. It’s imperative that we operate more globally.”

Wall Street may not be as confident as Redstone. Shares of Viacom were off about 7% in trading earlier Monday. “We see some major hurdles as Viacom confronts its ongoing challenges as an independent company,” said Tuna Amobi, a media-industry analyst for CFRA Research, in a note issued earlier in the day.

In a letter issued Monday morning, Redstone and her father, Sumner, said they were ” very impressed with the forward-looking thinking and strategic plan being pursued under Bob Bakish’s leadership.  We know Viacom has tremendous assets that are currently undervalued, and we are confident that with this new strong management team, the value of these assets can be unleashed.”

Bakish has been working in the media industry for decades. A former partner in the media practice of Booz Allen Hamilton, he joined Viacom in 1997, working his way through stints involving business development and advertising sales. Now, he has a seat at the top and will play a major role in the future of everything from the kids’ programming that is part of Nickelodeon to the Tom Cruise franchises – “Mission: Impossible” and “Jack Reacher” – that have been part of the bedrock of Paramount.

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