Viacom CEO Bob Bakish (Barely) Addresses Possible CBS Merger: "We'll See What Happens"

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Bob Bakish

"This is the third time we're having a conversation about this," Bakish acknowledged during a session at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish late Thursday didn't bother refuting reports that, when the board of directors for CBS meet Friday, they'll likely discuss the possibility of merging the two companies, both of which are controlled by Shari and Sumner Redstone.

"This is the third time we're having a conversation about this," Bakish acknowledged during a session at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. "We'll see what happens. But the opportunity that's afforded in today's landscape continues to be very compelling for Viacom."

On Thursday, CNBC reported that a hangup in an alleged merger plan involves the question of who would run the combined company, Bakish or CBS CEO Joe Ianniello. Shari Redstone prefers Bakish, according to CNBC.

Bakish, though, was clearly avoiding the topic Thursday night. "I know that's disappointing," he said after dodging the question asked by journalist Dawn Chmielewski, who moderated the discussion. Bakish dodged the query again about 30 minutes later when it was brought up by an attendee.

Instead, Bakish focused his remarks on a turnaround at Paramount Pictures and MTV and his plans for PlutoTV, an ad-based streamer that Viacom bought in March for about $340 million. Then, it had 12 million monthly active users; now it has more than 16 million, Bakish said.

He said in the near term, at least, Pluto TV will remain a play on library content where there's "tons of room to run," though he didn't rule out original content sometime in the future. He added, however, that Pluto TV isn't going to morph into a Netflix-like subscription service.

"We looked at that," he said. "We chose this alternate path, which was ad-supported, free. … The category is huge. So I'd rather go do that than spend $15 billion chasing something else."

As for the film studio, Bakish said: "We are in the early stages of restoring Paramount's truly iconic status."

He raved about the next movie in the Terminator franchise due in October — "It's going to be off the hook" — and noted that Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos has a stated goal of making movies for "everyone." Crawl, out on July 12, was the example Bakish used. "You know, it's low budget, about an alligator and a hurricane, and a daughter who looks for her father in a flooded house."

He said that Paramount will be profitable this fiscal year amid "an improvement of $500 million in a few years."

"The mountain is back. It's a place where people ... want to bring projects first," he said. "Look at Rocketman. That's a film that studios didn't want to make, candidly."