ViacomCBS U.K., Australia Boss on Streaming, Originals, Diversity Focus

Maria Kyriacou
Courtesy of Matt Frost/ViacomCBS

Maria Kyriacou tells THR about growing free-to-air TV networks Channel 5 in Britain and Network 10 in Australia, the acquisition of Israel's Ananey and the challenges of managing teams remotely amid the pandemic in her first year at the company.

In late 2019, just before its merger with CBS closed, Viacom hired ITV Studios president of international Maria Kyriacou as president of U.K., Northern and Eastern Europe, lauding her "track record of growing international revenues from production, content licensing and distribution at both ITV and Disney."

When she started in early 2020, her London-based role at the combined company had changed to president of ViacomCBS Networks U.K. and Australia due to a new regional cluster organization that took effect after the merger.

Soon after, the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing Kyriacou and her team to work remotely. And in April 2020, ViacomCBS took full control of Israeli TV firm Ananey Communications, adding another asset for the executive to integrate into the company's international operations. So it has been a busy first year for the executive serving as president, ViacomCBS Networks International, Australia, Israel and U.K.

THR's international business editor Georg Szalai talked to Kyriacou about her first year, the changes she instituted, the success of free-to-air broadcasters Channel 5 in Britain and Network 10 in Australia, ViacomCBS' increased focus on streaming and the challenges of managing teams via Zoom amid the global pandemic and lockdowns.

What has your focus been in your first year at ViacomCBS and how much did you have to change or just fine-tune in the operations you oversee?

It's a mixture of both, but then you also got the layer of what remote working and living under lockdown mean. In the first few months, it was all about the operation, about making sure we were set up to do the daily tasks efficiently from home and prioritizing people’s welfare.

We are still trying to make sure and provide support for people going through this third lockdown. We just introduced this thing called green hour [in the U.K.] where one hour a day we are telling people to just take off, because you got to think not only about physical safety, but also mental well-being during this time.

The first few months we just spent a disproportionate amount of time just figuring out how we were going to operate, how to keep productions going, how to keep commissioning going, how to keep the schedules fresh, how to look after our people. Once we adapted, which was relatively quickly, thank god for technology and a strong tech team, we then started looking at longer-term and making sure that 2020 was a foundation year.

How so?

I wanted 2020 to be that year we made sure our structure was right, restructured where necessary, made sure we were lean, especially in Australia where Network 10 had had a few rocky years.

Tell me more about your early focus at Network 10, which CBS had acquired in late 2017. It was the only commercial network in Australia that grew in 2020, with its primetime audience up 8 percent. What’s going well there?

It was previously in administration when CBS bought it. It was really important that we had a stable long-term business. 10 is a phenomenal broadcaster and channel, but we had to make sure they were on stable ground and fully integrated into the wider ViacomCBS and utilizing everything it has to offer. We now got one ViacomCBS face to the market, both creatively and commercially, because our ad sales arm is now selling across brands. There is one creative route into the company, Beverley McGarvey who was promoted early last year to chief content officer and executive vp.

10 last year launched a 10 Shake, a free-to-air channel that showcases popular content from the company's portfolio of programming for kids and adults, including The Late Late Show With James CordenLip Sync BattleCatfishSpongeBob SquarePants, iCarly and Paw Patrol. What was the idea behind this? 

We now have our own dedicated channel up to six o'clock every day. It's kids programming, which relies heavily on the Nick catalog. And then we switch to a young adults kind schedule, so we're using MTV, Comedy Central shows, and we are offering it free to the market for the first time as one complete channel. It was the first thing we did, because it made so much sense. It just reinforces our belief in the free model. It seems like the ViacomCBS international operation has really started making a name for itself with adding free-to-air assets in key markets, like the U.K. and Australia, into the mix. …

I think last year we really saw the benefits of having these free-to-air networks. More people turned to television than ever before, because they were locked down in their own homes. But our networks, despite being the smallest, or number three, in both Australia and the U.K., had the strongest share growth in the marketplace. And I think we recognized how important it was to serve local audiences with local content.

Speaking of the U.K.: In 2014, what was then Viacom acquired Channel 5 in the U.K., which had a particularly strong 2020. The new version of All Creatures Great and Small reached a consolidated audience of 5 million with a 25 percent share, making it Channel 5’s highest-rated original commission ever. And in primetime it has been narrowing the gap with BBC Two and Channel 4. What has worked well for Channel 5 overall?

When we bought Channel 5, the assumption in the U.K. was that an American owner of a public broadcast channel would mean a lot of American programming would suddenly find its way on the screens. But actually, the reverse has happened over the course of the time that we've owned it. We have moved to more and more of original British content from British audiences. And I think that is the strength of free TV, no matter what happens in the industry. Free TV networks are going to deliver that sort of local experience. People like to see themselves reflected back on television.

In Britain, TV networks, especially public service broadcasters, have been trying to become less London-centric. How happy are you with how well your Channel 5 has done in that regard?

I think we are doing a fantastic job. I mean Ben Frow [director of programming at Channel 5 and ViacomCBS U.K.] is doing a fantastic job of commissioning from regional indies. We want to work with some of the smaller indies outside London. I think we've got more as a percentage of our schedule coming from outside of London than anyone else. And we exceed the [media regulator] Ofcom target quota of 10 percent for regional hours and spend. We also work with our commissioners to identify BAME-led indies. It's really important that when we say something is our intent, we actually follow through. Actions are super important. It's easy to say things and then it just all evaporates. So I think people in the industry will love seeing actual results.

Channel 5 in Britain and Network 10 in Australia have also increased their original programming. How key is that and what kind of originals do they need to focus on?

Our content strategy is working in both territories. You saw audience share growth in both last year. I think our share growth in the U.K. was bigger than that of all our big competitors.  And in Australia, Network 10 was the only commercial channel that grew its share. So we have no plans to change our strategy and our vision for what our channels are. What they both need to do is add something to the overall eco-system. They need to be doing their own thing.

Channel 5 especially is much more regionally focused and favors smaller indies. When everybody else is doing big entertainment shows that are old and have been there a while, Channel 5 is reinventing itself constantly with new factual shows and new dramas. Our dramas worked super well last year. We have been increasing and doubling our investment in drama every single year. We are doubling the investment this year, and we are doubling it again the following year. The success we have with All Creatures Great and Small has been fantastic and gives us the confidence to keep commissioning new dramas.

That's also helping to boost [video-on-demand service] My5. Our overall strategy is prioritizing streaming, with Paramount+ being part of that, Pluto being part of that. In the U.K. and Australia, we also have My5 and 10 Play, and they have huge potential for growth. Last year, My5 grew by 57 percent, and 10 Play grew by 18 percent in terms of minutes viewed. It just shows the opportunity if we can invest in those channels even more.

In April, ViacomCBS completed a deal for full control of TV company Ananey in Israel, in which it had owned a minority stake. How has that business done for you?

We had a relationship with Ananey for a long time, something like 20 years. It has a large number of channels, but the future focus of the business is increasingly going to be the studio and building it up. Israel is one of the best creative hubs in the world. It is creatively punching well above its weight. Ananey has in the past focused more on teens, kids and animation, increasingly they are developing global shows, using their connections to Israeli talent and all the global connections they have to put together co-productions. A studio is a great thing to have, because it creates IP, and IP is what you need to make sure you are strong across all your channels and on-demand platforms, especially SVOD, because SVOD is content-hungry. So they fit really nicely into our vision of the future business. But we had to make sure they were fully integrated. We trimmed them down a bit as there are certain duplications when you have separate companies that you integrate. We were trying to integrate two companies remotely from London and make sure that they are really et up so that we can hit the ground running in 2021. It’s all been via Zoom.

When you commission shows, do you think about whether they could translate to ViacomCBS networks in the U.S. or other markets?

If we can move it somewhere else, great, but that is not necessary. It's a balancing act. I came from studio distribution side of the business. And it is very difficult to commission something or to back a show, because you think it is ticking boxes. Creativity is creativity, shows are either good or bad. Trying to sort of back into a model never quite works. So with both Channel 5 and 10, the number one criteria is will it work in that market, because we want to be locally relevant, not trying to be a channel that is principally content from somewhere else. We want to be relevant to local lives. Then, if the idea is good, and we think the rest of the business would be interested in it, there will be phone calls and connections being made.

How did you and your team adjust to working from home amid the pandemic?

We have all adjusted. It was a bit of a shock in the beginning. I joined Viacom last February just before the pandemic. I had been at ITV Studios for about nine years and before that at Disney for 15 years. So I joined full of enthusiasm, lots of energy and was raring to go. I was going to walk the corridors, meet everyone, spend time with everybody in meetings, get really under the skin of the business. I was planning how much of my year I would spend in Australia versus the U.K. And then I had one week in Australia and met them all, a week in the U.S. meeting some of my American colleagues, and I had two to three weeks in the London office getting around the business and then moved to working remotely. And it’s been like this ever since, with people watching me in my spare bedroom on Zoom, on endless calls.

What were the key challenges beyond shipping out camera equipment to production teams to make sure they could do work during lockdowns?

The more challenging part is how do you look after people remotely. How do you make sure that your colleagues are okay and they are coping and they are coping with a world where they are all locked down? They are missing their families and friends. There are some terrible things we are having to deal with at the moment. We've also got the issue with parents who are having to home tutor their kids at the same time as working. Going into 2020, I'm not sure you would have identified that as the biggest difficulties. You must be thinking ahead all the time and making sure that you know how you are going to communicate with everybody, providing them with a sense of team when you are turning all of our get-togethers into Zoom town halls. Making sure they have got resources online to go to for help and assistance if they are struggling a bit with whatever – child care or their own mental health. All of that is essential.

It's not just about getting computers out to people. That’s easy. It's more making sure that everybody gets a break every now and then or stays motivated or can have a shoulder to cry on if there's any trauma and saying, "you know, what take the rest of the day off and take your kid out into the snow because you've been working too hard."

Streaming has been a big focus across the company, including the upcoming launch of Paramount+, which you will also roll out in Australia as part of a rebrand of your streaming service there. Anything you expect there to be much different from the U.S. streaming service?

You shouldn't be surprised to see a couple of Australian shows in the Australian lineup of Paramount+ when it launches later on this year. We realize it's all about the content and the strength of the content. We think we've got an amazing portfolio, something for everyone, and will supplement it with some originals and some exclusives and have a super-strong proposition to launch. Any next goals that you want to achieve? What’s key is that content is at the heart of everything. The change you will see over the course of the next 12 months is that move towards prioritizing streaming, whether that is Pluto TV, Paramount+ in Australia, My5 here in the U.K. That change for us is having that streaming mentality. So, increasingly, as you see our commissioning teams in the U.K. and Australia looking at shows for Paramount+, or acquisitions for Pluto, there's going to be a lot more alignment, a lot more working together.

Since we are talking about change, you have really made diversity a big focus as has the company. How have you and your team been trying to make inclusion and diversity a key focus?

When I joined in February, I have to say I was blown away by how much ViacomCBS prioritizes diversity and inclusion. I found a company that I respected from day one for their attitude.

Having that foundation, having that value already embedded in the organization, I think has really suited me. It really fits my own values and what I truly believe myself. We were therefore able to act relatively quickly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement last year. This year, we have got another goal that we need to be getting on within the U.K., which is we have pledged to double disability representation. We have got senior leaders who believe an inclusive approach to strategy and inclusive approach to management is essential. And from that, we have been able to create a whole series of different programs and initiatives. We are constantly striving towards diverse representation in our productions as well.

Ben Frow said it best: our policy "no diversity, no commission." And that was such a strong statement, because it was a statement of intent. But behind it was this commitment to making it real, to questioning yourself, to questioning the producers and the people we work with, and to making sure that they have done everything they possibly can to make sure that we are reflecting diverse lives. The "no diversity, no commission" policy that came out of the U.K. is now the ViacomCBS International-wide policy. That sense of wanting to be a company that is at the forefront of this, that isn't afraid to stand out, goes all the way through the organization.

So in Australia, Network 10 is the first and only commercial network to sign up to a Reconciliation Action Plan, where we will be using our platform to make sure that we are educating and reaching out to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the wider Australian community and look at our own recruitment practices and update them. We have introduced a number of programs.

How key are a focus on staff and empowering people to enabling change?

We are going to have to keep changing constantly, and if there is one positive that has come out of COVID, it is that everybody has gotten used to rapid change. You are now not going to accept someone saying "we can't do that." So there is an acceptance that you can change and change rapidly. And you need really good executives who believe that, know what they are doing and who aren't scared. You have to be prepared to put your foot forward and move forward. [ViacomCBS CEO] Bob [Bakish] is shifting the organization's focus, but we have to act quickly.  That was another by-product of COVID, that a lot of the trends we saw as longer-term got condensed.

Anything else you would like to share?

All I can say is I feel unbelievably lucky because I'm working in an industry I love. Television is a joy, it brings joy. I'm in an organization that feels that it has hit a very special point in its history where we are building on all the success of the past, whether that is our approach to culture or whether it is the content we have got and then transforming things for streaming. The pace of change is exciting.