Viacom CEO Bob Bakish: No Paramount Sale, a Course-Correct for MTV and Moving Past Corporate "Drama"

Jenny Anderson/Getty Images
Bob Bakish

The media chief says he'll be ready to share plans to refresh the struggling cable portfolio around February.

Just two months into his official tenure as president and CEO of Viacom, Bob Bakish is starting to talk about his strategy for the embattled cable portfolio and Paramount Pictures.

Assuming leadership after nixed plans for a Viacom-CBS merger, the exec now looks to fix the narrative on a slew of networks — including the particularly weary MTV, which has hemorrhaged younger viewers since its heyday.

"MTV, on the USA side, has struggled on the ratings perspective for a number of years," said Bakish, appearing at a Wednesday panel at the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Miami Beach. "And that contrasts with MTV internationally. The first thing I did was look at management."

VH1 topper Chris McCarthy was named president of MTV within 10 days of Bakish's interim tenure as Viacom CEO. Bakish credited McCarthy with making VH1 one of the most valuable channels in the suite, improving its ratings double digits in 2016, and claimed to already see a turnaround at the flagship network. December ratings were up for the first month in two years.

Bakish also touched on changes plans for Nickelodeon, but mentioned no other networks by name. He hinted that more formal announcements for plans are on the immediate horizon.

"I think it's fair to say that we live in a fascinating media world," he said. "Against that backdrop, the last 12 to 18 months at Viacom has been one that's been filled with drama. And I think a lot has been lost in that. Viacom still has the largest share on pay TV of every demo that it serves. Sure, there's been a lot of drama, far too much than I care to read, and our stock has taken a hit. ... We needed an overall plan. We have great assets but the world is evolving. I see a very clear path forward. We're probably going to start talking about it to the marketplace in February."

The drama Bakish referred to, of course, was a reference to the saga of 93-year-old media magnate Sumner Redstone, who finally stepped down from his executive chairman role at both Viacom and CBS in 2016. When asked if Bakish's plans included shuttering any brands, he offered a firm 'no.' He also dismissed reports that Viacom is looking to sell its stake in Paramount Pictures.

"It's going to stay," the exec asserted. "We will view Paramount a much more integral part of Viacom moving forward."

Given the venue, the conversation focused on TV efforts. And Bakish seemed bullish on over-the-top and digital consumption — no surprise giving the younger audiences targeted by MTV, Comedy Central and BET. He said that the reliance on technology will be a bigger priority during his tenure. "Cleary, the entertainment product is being delivered through technology," said Bakish. "We have to be a technology company."

As far as expectations or pressure, the exec brushed them off. In fact, he appeared to be pleased with the challenge.

"We have become more of the underdog, which I like," said Bakish. "There's a clear path forward."