Viacom Is "Well Along" in Picking New Paramount Leadership, CEO Says

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Viacom CEO Bob Bakish

Bob Bakish explains why Trevor Noah's 'Daily Show' now also airs on BET, why Viacom's smaller networks will be fine and the lessons Amy Schumer and Jordan Peele provide for his goal of retaining top talent.

Viacom is close to naming new Paramount leadership, CEO Bob Bakish told an investor conference on Tuesday.

Speaking at Deutsche Bank's 25th Annual Media & Telecom Conference in Palm Beach, Fla., in a session that was webcast, he said, "Paramount is an iconic studio and great asset [with] significant performance issues." He continued: "We are well along in bringing on board the next set of leadership. Hopefully that will come together in the very near future, and then we can begin to talk about it." 

Bakish didn't share more details or specific names about new studio management after Paramount boss Brad Grey recently agreed to depart after 12 years as the company looks to revitalize the studio unit and its performance. But Bakish said: "I'm very excited about it," saying his goal was to "really extract the full potential of Viacom."

While Viacom searches for Grey's replacement, an interim operating committee is running the studio and reporting to Bakish. The operating committee includes Paramount TV and digital entertainment president Amy Powell, COO Andrew Gumpert, movie division president Marc Evans, marketing/distribution president Megan Colligan and CFO Mark Badagliacca. Bakish recently said the committee will "keep the momentum going as we undertake a comprehensive search to identify a successor."

Names that have been mentioned as possible contenders for the top Paramount job include Jim Gianopulos, former chairman of Twentieth Century Fox; former Universal executive and producer Scott Stuber; former Lionsgate and Paramount top executive Rob Friedman; Oscars producer Michael De Luca, a veteran of Sony and others; and former Warner Bros. head Jeff Robinov.

Bakish told the Deutsche Bank conference that "we have work to do" in terms of the success of movies and said he likes Paramount's current target of releasing 15 films a year. In a competitive world, companies need advantages, and more closely integrating Viacom's film and TV operations are such an advantage, he added.

Comparing Paramount's new film strategy with that of Walt Disney, Bakish said the latter spent a "significant” amount of money on acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm and now runs "a defined slate." He added: "We have an analogous opportunity with a different set of assets," and said that this will help people "understand what types of projects we’re looking for and will help us differentiate those projects in terms promotional support we are able to give them."

Paramount was last among the six major studios in market share in 2016, with only one movie, Star Trek Beyond, cracking $100 million in domestic box office, and it last year posted its first-ever annual loss since The Hollywood Reporter started calculating the profitability of entertainment conglomerates' film units.

Bakish also reiterated his focus on talent relationships and retaining top talent across Viacom businesses. He cited Amy Schumer's early relationship with Viacom's Comedy Central, which is "very good at identifying talent," as an example of Viacom's success but highlighted that Schumer then went on to do a film for Universal instead of continuing the relationship with the company. In the same vein, he said Jordan Peele's (formerly of Comedy Central's Key & Peele) movie Get Out should have also been made at Paramount instead of Universal. 

"We have a real opportunity to grow our talent relationships, provide opportunities," Bakish said. "There is significant opportunity to manage talent" across a more integrated company.

The Viacom CEO also mentioned a new example of using existing content and talent better. The Late Show With Trevor Noah has more upside in growing its total audience with the recent, but not widely promoted, decision to take it off Hulu and instead also air it on BET at midnight, which has shown early success, he said.

“Starting last week, we started giving it a second airing on BET at midnight. That’s all about leveraging a non-overlapping audience,” Bakish said. "Our linear ratings are up 10 percent on Comedy Central alone, our streams are up 50 percent. We have an additional 0.17 rating on the BET side. When you aggregate that, it is a much more significant platform for an important piece of IP."

Another key issue of debate was the outlook for Viacom's smaller cable networks. "We kept pushing for more distribution, which is actually not something we fundamentally need," Bakish said about their outlook and about where Viacom's past strategy went wrong. "They tend to be relatively low-cost networks, so they are fine in terms of economics where they are distributed." 

Discussing new virtual pay TV bundles, the exec suggested that an entertainment channel bundle priced in the low teens to $20 range was "inevitable" one day and a possible mouse trap for cord-nevers.

Discussing his new overall strategy for Viacom, Bakish was also asked if he is boosting the overall content budget. The CEO reiterated that "it's about spending money differently," rather than spending more money.

Bakish recently unveiled a new strategy, saying Viacom would focus on its six core flagship brands (MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount) and look for a "deeper integration" of Paramount Pictures with the rest of the company. The company, controlled by the Redstone family, as part of that unveiled that Spike TV will be rebranded Paramount Network. 

"We had a company that was highly siloed," with Paramount run as a separate island, Bakish also reiterated on Tuesday, vowing to make the various parts of the company work together more closely in the future.