Viacom's Bob Bakish Says Paramount, MTV, Comedy Central Are Among Key Priorities

Bob Bakish - MTV shuga event - Getty - H - 2016
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The acting CEO designate says his goal is to boost growth and maximize Viacom's value as an independent company while it explores a CBS deal, talks skinny bundles and possible cuts to the number of networks.

Viacom's acting CEO designate Bob Bakish on Wednesday spoke on his first earnings conference call since being tapped from his role as head of Viacom International Media Networks and outlined some of his thinking, including sharing that MTV, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures will be key focus areas for him, along with strong distribution relationships.

While saying he was “truly optimistic” about the company’s future and that "we have a very strong footing" that he will focus on building on, he also acknowledged "challenges." And he vowed he would bring some of the successful international business strategies that he has used to build Viacom International Media Networks in recent years to Viacom's U.S. business. "It’s imperative that we operate more globally," he added.

Bakish also said that he has brought together senior managers to start discussing near-term initiatives to boost growth. He said his goal was to "accelerate our evolution while building a long-term vision for our future.” While a CBS Corp. deal is under consideration, he said his mandate was to "maximize Viacom's potential as an independent company."

Asked if the company could trim the number of its networks, Bakish said, "the vast majority of the benefits" of Viacom's broad audience reach would be maintained if the number of channels were reduced.

While not unveiling major initiatives, he said at Paramount the slate of films would be "highly important," and he would also look at marketing as a possible opportunity for Paramount, adding he has been in regular exchange with Paramount boss Brad Grey.

He also lauded MTV and Comedy Central for programming successes, but said his team would look to build further on those.

Bakish said that he feels the company has a strong enough financial position to invest "to drive a turnaround" in Viacom's U.S. businesses. Based on his international experience, he said "a lot of this is about the mix of investments — it’s not about whether you have to spend dramatically more money necessarily." He added: "Our international experience shows you can deliver significant audiences on genres other than high-dollar scripted programming.”

Overall, he also promised to inject “speed, sharing and a global outlook" into Viacom's operations.

Bakish spoke on Wednesday's call, which outgoing interim CEO Tom Dooley hosted and which also included CFO Wade Davis. He thanked Dooley for his leadership and Sumner and Shari Redstone and the other Viacom board members for their "tireless drive to do right by Viacom."

Dooley started the call by saying that Bakish was "exactly the right leader for our next chapter," highlighting his "deep" knowledge of the company's operations and relationships inside and outside the company.

Naturally, one topic of much interest was a potential recombination with CBS Corp., led by chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, who is expected to run the enlarged company if a deal can be reached.

Dooley early on the call said there would be no update on the talks, but added: "We want to be very clear. Viacom will continue to operate for the long-term.” And Bakish later reiterated that his board mandate was to run Viacom as an independent company.

National Amusements, through which Sumner Redstone and daughter Shari Redstone control Viacom and CBS Corp., earlier this year called on both companies to begin researching a possible merger.

"The state of CBS is extremely strong, which is more important now than ever given changes in our industry and as we consider a potential recombination with Viacom,” Moonves said on last week's CBS earnings call. “We are still in the very early stages. If it looks right and is structured properly, it could be an attractive opportunity.”

Bakish's appointment, effective after Dooley's service ends Nov. 15, came as the latest change on top of the conglomerate. Dooley followed after the ouster of Philippe Dauman in the battle for control of the media giant.

Last week, it named Bakish acting CEO as of mid-month and also immediately gave him the new role of president and CEO of Viacom Global Entertainment Group, which combines the international businesses with Viacom's Music and Entertainment Group.

Discussing Paramount, Dooley predicted that it would "begin to stand up and distinguish itself," adding that next year’s Transformers: The Last Knight will be “one of the biggest movies of the summer."

Another topic that came up on the call was Sony's PlayStation Vue streaming service, which earlier this week said it would stop carrying Viacom networks starting Friday "to continue to offer the most compelling value to our fans." Dooley made a general comment on digital offers, saying: "As digital OTT options grow, we are optimistic about the particular value of Viacom’s young-skewing networks in those offerings." He later said about the Vue situation that "there’s an ongoing negotiation, and we’ll see how that plays out.”

Dooley also said that "one of the offerings we’re enthusiastic about is DirecTV Now," the upcoming streaming service that will offer "a robust bundle with 11 Viacom networks in its 100-network portfolio."

Dooley also touted the state of the advertising market, saying: "On a macro level, the advertising market is very good right now, leading to high demand for inventory across our networks." And he said: "We are significantly increasing our incremental revenues driven by next-generation ad products."