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Viacom CEO Supports Paramount And Non-Core Networks – But For How Long?

Deadline logo Deadline 2/9/2017 David Lieberman
© Provided by Deadline

It’s a truism in business that planning is easy, but execution is hard. That’s the reality Viacom CEO Bob Bakish faces following the rollout this morning of his sweeping vision to focus the entertainment giant around six TV brands and tie them more closely to the Paramount studio, for example with co-productions.

Perhaps the hardest, and most immediate, challenge is reviving the movie studio, which lost $445 million in the fiscal year that ended in September.

“The overall financial picture remains disappointing,” he said today in a conversation with Deadline. “The improvement of that is a priority of the company.”

While he believes his new strategy will help, he adds that “we have to have better execution, and I’m in regular dialogue with Brad [Grey] about that.”

But the CEO isn’t ready to turn the studio on its head.

“Nothing has changed” regarding Grey’s authority to greenlight films, Bakish says. He also calls himself “a fan” of Motion Picture Group president Marc Evans.

What about the speculation that Paramount Television and Digital Entertainment president Amy Powell is in line to replace Evans?

Bakish says that, as a policy, he doesn’t comment on rumors but adds that “both are doing a very good job.”

The CEO also was tightlipped about Paramount’s thoughts regarding co-financing its tentpole films after its arrangement with Skydance comes to a close. He’s upbeat, however, about his recent major slate finance deal with Shanghai Film Group and Huahua: They will pay at least $1 billion over the next three years — with an option for a fourth year — to own 25% of the economics of some major releases.

“We are thrilled to be in partnership with them,” Bakish says. “We also think the fact they’re Chinese will help us in that global market.”

The former head of Viacom International Media Networks also sees overseas growth opportunities for television networks as the company focuses on what it calls its six “flagship” brands: Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., BET, Comedy Central, MTV and Paramount — with Spike rebranded as a general entertainment service: The Paramount Network.

He points, for example, to the UK  where pay TV subscribers often order channels in targeted packs instead of the broad bundles offered in the U.S. “Only 52% of people [in the UK] pay for sports, and 100% pay for entertainment,” Bakish says.

That’s meaningful to the entertainment company because pay TV is still growing overseas while “inside the U.S. it’s difficult to make that argument.”

Paramount’s young TV production arm will produce some shows for Viacom networks, although Bakish says that “there will probably be significantly more third party [content] in terms of the mix than in-house.” He plans to look for “more ways to work together as a company.”

But after picking Viacom’s six winning networks, it’s unclear what will happen to what Bakish calls the “reinforcing” services such as VH1, CMT, TV Land, and Logo.

They “will remain important parts of our network portfolio,” the CEO says.

Still, he shies from specifics including how much original programming the channels will offer — or what will happen to TV Land’s president of Development & Production Keith Cox.

Cox “is a very talented executive who has done a phenomenal job building the original scripted slate at TV Land and I’m a big fan,” Bakish says, declining to expand.

The reinforcing channels may have to scramble for cash as Viacom builds the flagships, and works to reduce its $11.9 billion in net debt.

Over the long term “will we have fewer networks? Probably,” Bakish says.

But he says that the smaller channels aren’t ready for the scrap pile.

“The smaller networks and digital networks – the MTV Live networks, things like that – they actually are very inexpensive to operate and distributors like them because they put them on tiers,” he says. “The notion of shutting a whole bunch of these down is not as obvious as it might seem.”

Also not obvious are what Bakish calls the non-strategic assets he might sell. It’s “a relatively short list,” he says — but “that’s where I’m going to leave it.”

He also wouldn’t bite when asked about whether Viacom might want to buy Lionsgate’s 31% stake in Epix, which they co-own with MGM. Lionsgate is thinking about selling following its recent acquisition of Starz.

For the most part, he says, “I’m focused on the future not the past” — including when it comes to former CEO Philippe Dauman’s extravagant outlays to repurchase Viacom stock and offer dividends. Some company watchers say that the cash would have been better used to build the entertainment assets.

But that was then.

“We briefed the board on Monday,” about the new strategy, Bakish says, “and they came away extremely excited and gave us resounding support.”

Now comes the hard part.

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