Viacom CEO Bob Bakish Avoids CBS Talk, Trumps Paramount Turnaround

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Bob Bakish

The executive did not directly address the ouster of CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and what that could mean for plans to combine the business with Viacom, saying only "what we're very focused on is operating the assets we already own."

When Viacom CEO Bob Bakish took the stage Wednesday at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference in New York, the story he was there to tell was one of turnaround. 

The company, he told the crowd of investors, will "get back to historical profitability levels in the next few years." 

Bakish had reason to be feeling good. Just days earlier, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves was ousted after a new group of women accused him of sexual abuse. The change appeared to give Shari Redstone, the majority owner of Viacom and CBS via her National Amusements, the upper hand in a battle she has been waging to merge the two businesses, which separated in 2005. If that scenario unfolds, Bakish is the leading contender to take over the combined businesses. 

Bakish never directly referenced the goings on at CBS, but did acknowledge the corporate maneuvering by saying, "There's a lot of noise and activity around consolidation and scale. For our purposes, what we're very focused on is operating the assets we already own."

Redstone's man at Viacom — she helped install him as CEO in 2016 after the ouster of Philippe Dauman, the longtime ally of her father, Sumner Redstone — has indeed presided over a period of stabilization for Viacom. The company reported better-than-expected fiscal third-quarter earnings in August brought about by some cost-cutting measures. The film unit's operating profit grew to $44 million, up from $9 million during the same period a year ago, even as revenue slumped 9 percent. The television unit's operating income was down 8 percent. 

"We're simultaneously working on a Viacom turnaround and an evolution of the business," Bakish told the Communacopia crowd, ticking off recent acquisitions of digital studio Awesomeness and influencer marketing firm WhoSay. 

Though Viacom is fighting against consumer trends when it comes to growing its television business, Bakish spoke with enthusiasm about that unit at Viacom. "If you take MTV circa November '16, there were a lot of people saying that it's over, it's lost its relevance. I, on the other hand, believe it was about bad execution and the wrong management," he said, explaining that after a change in management, "MTV has had a string of growth quarters." 

At Paramount specifically, the exec noted that chairman-CEO Jim Gianopulos "definitely has turned out to be" the right man for the job. "You see it in the numbers in the third quarter, and you'll see it in the fourth quarter," Bakish explained, noting the success of titles like The Quiet Place and Book Club. He added, "There's no question that the 'mountain' is back."