Viacom CEO Bob Bakish Remains Mum on CBS Merger Rumors

Bob Bakish - 2017 BET Upfront NY - Getty - H 2018
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Bakish was more forthcoming about some threatening emails Viacom has received: "We have a responsibility to protect our employees and ensure their safety."

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish dismissed a question about whether the company he runs will merge with CBS as "rumor" and "noise" during a discussion Monday in Beverly Hills.

"This is the third time this rumor mill has gone around," Bakish said at the Milken Institute Global Conference. "What I told my teams to do is 'stay focused.' … As far as the other noise? There's always noise; there's always distractions. You gotta play through and see where it goes."

Many on Wall Street have been expecting CBS and Viacom — each controlled by Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shari — to merge ever since Les Moonves, a major opponent of a merger, stepped down in September amid sexual misconduct and harassment claims.

Bakish was also asked about the #MeToo movement that spelled the end to the career of Moonves, but the Viacom CEO spoke only in generalities.

"It goes to the topic of culture," Bakish said prior to boasting that more than 50 percent of Viacom's employees are women and that "we have more women on our board than virtually any other Fortune 500 company."

"We have open lines and all kinds of transparency," he said. "Knock on wood, we haven't had any massive issues."

Bakish spoke of diversity as a priority: "We think we're able to do our best work when our company mirrors those audiences."

Moderator Andy Serwer, the editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Finance, also asked if the social media giants that compete against Viacom for advertising dollars should be broken up or more heavily regulated. 

"In general, we like free-market economies. If there are regulations, we like consistency," he said, using the ad business in the U.K. as an example where television is regulated but internet platforms are not. 

Serwer asked Bakish if the partisan politics that are sometimes part of Viacom's content cause him "headaches."

"I do get emails on a regular basis from people complaining about something someone did," said the exec. "I got a bunch of emails about something Trevor Noah did last week. The first time you get those, it's kind of jarring, but, at the end of the day, people are choosing what content to watch. They don't have to watch our content."

Bakish wasn't specific about the complaint about Noah, but he hinted that sometimes Viacom talent might receive threats.

"We have a responsibility to protect our employees and ensure their safety," said Bakish. "There was a case a couple of years ago where there was a particular piece of content that was made that depicted something that we thought was risky, particularly in some places outside the U.S. We made a very unusual decision to limit the access to that because we didn't want to put our employees at risk."

In general, though, the exec doesn't like to put limits on creativity, he said, using the film A Quiet Place as an example: "A very inexpensive movie to make, … but it caught something on people and it turned out to be a much bigger movie than we thought. That was just a cool, creative idea."

Bakish acknowledged a very partisan political environment and blamed social media, "because, theoretically, it lets everyone have a voice, but in reality the only voices that cut through are the extreme voices. They drown out everything else. That's a problem."