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Viacom CEO: It’s Time To Focus On Growth Potential Following Year-Long “Drama”

Deadline logo Deadline 12/5/2016 David Lieberman
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Viacom’s acting CEO Bob Bakish told Wall Street today that some of his biggest assets including Paramount Pictures, MTV, and Comedy Central “need to get better” — while he urged investors to keep in mind that his company has “multiple billion-dollar brands that other companies would kill for.”

In his first public appearance at an investor conference, Bakish had little to add about Viacom’s merger talks with CBS. While a special board committee explores a possible deal “my mandate from the board is to drive Viacom as a strong independent company,” he told the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference.

He also assured those who were “freaked out” by a report that Viacom was considering an investment in Vice that “we’re not doing a Vice deal.”

Bakish primarily wanted to assure stock buyers that Viacom has several opportunities that were “lost in some of the drama of the last 18 months” as former CEO Philippe Dauman battled to keep his job over the objections of the company’s controlling shareholder, Sumner Redstone’s National Amusements.

“The story has been lost in the drama. …Sure we have some issues. But these are execution issues. It’s not curing cancer.”

Paramount is “in a low point of its performance cycle” after “two very rough years from a slate perspective,” he says.

But it’s “one of a very small collection of globally recognized studios” and “throws off a lot of cash.” The recent hiring of Andrew Gumpert as COO “will be a great step forward for the business.” So “while we do have issues, we have a clear path forward.”

As for the cable channels, the U.S. brands “can do better….We’ve lost share and we need to take that back.”

It was a “mistake that we’re going to address” for MTV to move away from music and toward scripted programming. “I’m confident that MTV’s audience will begin to turn by March 2017. We’ll start going in the right direction.”

He isn’t totally opposed to scripted. For example, he sees opportunities for MTV to collaborate with overseas partners to develop formats the way it has with international versions of Jersey Shore.

Bakish adds that Viacom must “turn [Comedy Central] a bit” following the loss of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

“Any network that takes that kind of hit is going to have a hole,” he says. But Stewart’s successor at The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, “is really finding a groove” and the show “is building and that’s essential” at a time when another franchise, South Park, “is doing well… Comedy will continue to build.”

Bakish is eager for the company to grow on new streaming services including AT&T’s DirecTV Now, which includes Viacom’s channels. They aren’t yet on Sony’s PlayStation Vue, but “we’re in conversations with them. We’ll figure it out.”

Upturns at MTV and Comedy Central will take care of “our two supply problems” for ratings points to sell to advertisers.

Bakish also urged investors to relax about Viacom’s recent $345 million acquisition of Argentina free-to-air service Telefe. Some wondered why the company was spending that cash as it also tries to reduce its debt, and after it cut shareholders’s dividend.

The deal was “financed with 100% with offshore cash,” he says, and the company “took no incremental debt on.” As a result, it “does not trigger any issues on the financial side.”

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