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When ViacomCBS was formed Dec. 4, some insiders predicted that Joe Ianniello, the CBS chief executive who was suddenly second fiddle to CEO Bob Bakish, wouldn’t be long for the gig. On Jan. 14, those prognostications became more real when it leaked that George Cheeks, the 55-year-old co-chairman at NBC Entertainment, would jump ship to CBS and likely be groomed as Ianniello’s successor.
That Ianniello is on his way out shouldn’t be surprising given Bakish’s desire to form his own leadership team — not to mention that Ianniello was a longtime ally of former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, who departed in September 2018 amid a sexual misconduct scandal after going to war with Shari Redstone, who controls ViacomCBS via her National Amusements.
But Cheeks’ move is a bit of a head-scratcher because it was only three months ago that parent Comcast chose Cheeks, along with Paul Telegdy, to replace Bob Greenblatt as NBC co-chairs. “He’s a top C-level candidate that Comcast should not have let CBS take away,” says Jimmy Schaeffler, an analyst with the Carmel Group. “He has an enticing Yale-Harvard educational background; telecom legal and business affairs experience; and a combination of both prior Viacom and competitive NBC experiences.”
Before NBC, Cheeks spent 14 years in a variety of capacities at Viacom, where he impressed Bakish before leaving for NBCUniversal in 2012 and cultivating key relationships there, including one with Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels. Neither CBS nor Comcast, where Cheeks is under contract for several more months even though insiders say he has already resigned, will comment, and the situation could change as talks proceed. While Ianniello is under contract through March 4, 2021, some insiders now speculate that the 22-year CBS veteran will leave sooner, taking with him a severance worth as much as $100 million.
“The move putting Ianniello over CBS but under Bakish never really made a lot of sense,” says Steven Birenberg of Northlake Capital Management. “Cheeks, even as CEO of CBS, will have less authority and pose less conflict with Bakish just because he does not have Joe’s long history at CBS.”
Meanwhile, the remaking of the merged company kept up on Jan. 21 as MTV, VH1, CMT and Logo GM Amy Doyle, a 20-year employee of Viacom, stepped down. The move follows a bevy of layoffs and promotions in CBS ad sales, announced Jan. 15, including the departures of 17-year Viacom ad sales veteran Valerie Bischak and Pluto TV chief revenue officer Rich Calacci. Insiders say hundreds more at several units will lose their jobs in the next three months.
ViacomCBS had roughly 23,100 employees at the merger’s close, but some analysts figure that 5 percent to 9 percent of them could be pink-slipped as a result of the recombination of Redstone’s assets, with some notices having gone out in mid-January.
In November, a restructuring saw Comedy Central topper Kent Alterman, Viacom Networks COO Sarah Levy departing, among others. CBS Interactive chief Jim Lanzone also stepped down that month. And Bakish said in December that CBS seeks to sell its historic Black Rock headquarters in New York — a move that would spur even more job losses — this year. “Batten down the hatches,” notes one ViacomCBS insider.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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