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New Viacom CEO Focuses on Breaking Down Silos, Mending ‘Frayed Relationships’

Variety logo Variety 1/18/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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MIAMI — Newly appointed Viacom CEO Bob Bakish wants to see more collaboration across the company’s divisions, and he wants to repair what he described as some “frayed relationships” with distribution partners.

Bakish said Viacom has become organized around too many “silos” and as such are missing opportunities to leverage their combined heft in the industry. Bakish spoke Wednesday at the NATPE conference, marking his first major public remarks since he was named permanent CEO in December.

“Paramount Pictures operates almost totally independently from the cable networks,” Bakish said. “To me that’s a big missed opportunity. We really need to work on ways we can leverage our combined scale.”

Bakish once again made it clear that Paramount Pictures is no longer up for sale. He said details about Viacom’s long-term growth strategy will be forthcoming next month, around the time Viacom reports its quarterly earnings.

“Let’s face it — the company needs a little bit of work,” he said, adding that it has become something of an “underdog.” But in the same breath he stressed his confidence in the ability to refurbish the key divisions. “There’s a clear path forward. We already are starting to see some green shoots,” he said. “Our stock has gotten hammered but we have fundamentally great assets.”

In the Q&A with former MTV exec Bob Friedman, Bakish was candid about the problems he inherited at Viacom. He’s taken the reins on the heels of a tumultuous year that saw longtime CEO Philippe Dauman leave after a legal battle with Viacom’s controlling shareholders, Sumner and Shari Redstone.

Bakish acknowledged that the storied culture of creativity in the cable group has been compromised by internal and external struggles. “There are still elements of that left but it’s definitely been beaten down,” he said. He emphasized that the company is committed to investing more than it has in recent years in its major brands: MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET, Spike TV and Paramount.

“One of the missed opportunities was that some of our programming has been a little too scattered,” he said. “We don’t have critical mass at some of the networks. We need to focus on that a bit more… and make sure flagship networks have the resources — programming, marketing and distribution — that they need.”

Bakish cited a deal that Viacom unveiled Wednesday with SallyAnn Salsano’s 495 Production, the creator of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” The deal spans all of its cable networks and is designed to allow them flexibility to determine the best home for prospective shows.

The cable group also has had struggles with MVPDs at a time when distributors are trying to clamp down on the number of marginal channels that gain carriage and Viacom’s big portfolio of 24 channels. Given the importance of the pay TV eco-system to the health of the entire industry, Bakish conceded that there were “some frayed relationships” with distributors after many years of tough negotiations. “We need to work hard and we need to work with our partners in the U.S.,” he said.

Bakish made it clear that he does not see himself as the person who should be a “show picker” for the cable channels. But he does want to foster a better environment for risk-taking with content given the need to stand out in a crowded TV environment. He has already made numerous management shifts in the cable group to address what he called “correctable issues.”

“We have to be in the mindset to take more risks,” he said. But he differentiated risks from “gambling.” “Risk-taking is more thoughtful. Why are we trying this? As long as someone can articulate to me why they want to do it, then if it doesn’t work we know why we did it.”

As for Paramount, Bakish hinted that the studio will become more closely aligned with Viacom’s other big brands.

“It’s fair to say we will view Paramount as much more integral part of Viacom,” he said. “Those brands will probably have something to do with it.”

Bakish has been with Viacom for nearly 20 years, starting out in business development and shifting to running the international networks wing in 2006. He pointed to the situation he found in the international division when he took over as offering a path forward for today.

“In international it was a confederate of independent nations, operated independently market by market,” he said. “We worked to create global scale.” He pointed to the Paramount Channel as an example — just four years after its launch the channel has become the most widely distributed ad-supported movie channel outside the U.S.

Bakish also cited the company’s experience in India. In 2007, Viacom shifted from a wholly owned channel that was losing $10 million a year to a joint venture with a local partner that now generates $500 million in revenue.

The half-hour Q&A gave Bakish a few opportunities to demonstrate a sense of humor.

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