Viacom Names Bob Bakish Acting CEO

Bob Bakish - MTV shuga event - Getty - H - 2016
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He follows Tom Dooley as Viacom and CBS continue to explore a possible recombination.

Viacom has promoted Bob Bakish, CEO and president of Viacom International Media Networks unit, to the post of acting president and CEO of the entire entertainment conglomerate, which boasts such assets as Paramount Pictures, MTV and Nickelodeon.

Viacom had announced in September that interim CEO Tom Dooley would depart in mid-November. The news was the latest major company development following the ouster of Philippe Dauman in the battle for control of the media giant. National Amusements, through which Sumner Redstone and daughter Shari Redstone control Viacom and CBS, has asked both companies to begin researching a possible recombination.

The question is whether Bakish will get to run Viacom longer-term or until a deal decision is reached with CBS, in which case CBS CEO Leslie Moonves is expected to be in charge.

Viacom CFO Wade Davis, who has been in his post since late 2012, also was reportedly considered for the Viacom interim CEO role. His past career as an investment banker is seen as helping amid the exploration of a possible CBS deal.

The statement issued Monday by the company says Bakish "will be responsible for accelerating the growth of Viacom's industry-leading networks and reinvigorating Viacom's brands."

Bakish also was appointed to the new role of president and CEO of Viacom Global Entertainment Group, or GEG, which combines the international businesses with Viacom's Music and Entertainment Group, consisting of MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, Spike and Logo. Additionally, TV Land and CMT will join the GEG. While the title of president and CEO of Viacom comes with the "acting" qualifier, his role as president and CEO of GEG does not.

One company source said the added role was designed to express commitment to Bakish in case a CBS deal can be reached. "In our view, this suggests the recombination with CBS is still on track, giving the board some flexibility while also showing a commitment to Bakish," echoed Jefferies analyst John Janedis.

Viacom also said Monday that its Kids and Family Group will be reestablished as the Nickelodeon Group while BET Networks will continue as a separate group.

Bakish has served as head of Viacom's international networks business since 2011. The unit has been one of the company's key growth areas at a time when Viacom's Paramount Pictures and U.S. networks have struggled. For example, VIMN's revenue and profits have increased, and its U.K. networks reached record revenue and viewer share in the latest fiscal year. The global assets now include 200 TV channels reaching 3.9 billion subscribers and international revenue doubled during Bakish's tenure.

Bakish and his team have expanded the global distribution of core network brands, such as Nickelodeon, made Comedy Central Viacom’s third global brand in addition to MTV and Nick, have started bringing Spike to foreign markets and have launched the Paramount Channel as an advertising-supported movie network in key international markets.

Showing his skills as a dealmaker, Bakish created the successful Viacom18 joint venture in India, and his team spearheaded the acquisition of Channel 5 in the U.K.

Under his leadership, VIMN has also looked for new models and deals for the digital age, encouraging, as one of his reports put it, to think outside the box. For example, it launched the Viacom Play Plex suite of branded mobile TV apps to offer VOD access to a range of current and library content, as well as a live local linear streams last year. It later added BET Play, the company's first-ever direct-to-consumer, subscription VOD app for an adult audience. Since the launch, the apps have been downloaded more than 15 million times with more than 30 million longform episode streams viewed each month, according to Viacom.

Bakish, a frequent traveler due to his job, first joined Viacom in 1997 after working as a partner at consulting firm Booz Allen & Hamilton in its media and entertainment practice. He served as executive vp and COO of MTV Networks Advertising Sales, then became Viacom's executive vp, operations and Viacom Enterprises, and later was named president of MTV Networks International.

"To be a successful leader in the industry today requires continuous flexibility, a global perspective, a commitment to innovation and an embrace of change," said Viacom vice chairman of the board Shari Redstone. "Bob is an exemplary forward thinker who embodies these traits, embraces disruption and brings teams along with him."

Bakish has a reputation for being a fast decision maker who likes to keep moving things forward rather than getting bogged down in bureaucracy. One executive who has worked with him describes him as down to earth and sociable and able to work with people across the operation, but also willing to make difficult decisions and to change strategies if current approaches aren't yielding the planned results.

One executive who used to work with him told The Hollywood Reporter that Bakish empowers people who report to him to run their businesses, while also supporting them, always being responsive and helping with strategic insight and oversight as needed.

"Bob is an inspirational leader, capable of engaging the team," says one current Viacom executive. "I admire his capacity to see the full picture and take care of the details at the same time."

Bakish has spoken at industry conferences around the world, but hasn't been a regular at investor conferences, making him less known on Wall Street. "Viacom's fiscal fourth-quarter earnings call on Nov. 9 will likely provide investors with their first real exposure to Bakish, however, as he will not yet have ascended to his new role, expectations need to be tempered," said Janedis.

In recent speeches and interviews, the exec has highlighted such topics as growing mobile distribution of content, the need to do TV Everywhere right and the growing social media integration of Viacom shows and events, such as its MTV EMAs, the MTV Europe Music Awards.

"Content is the lifeblood of our business and my near-term focus will be to nurture our creative output and brands, ensuring they remain distinctive, differentiated and powerful in an increasingly competitive global media landscape," Bakish said Monday.