Viacom’s Bob Bakish Talks Paramount CEO Search, Cable Strategy Revamp

Viacom president-CEO Bob Bakish has been meeting prospective candidates to take the helm of Paramount as part of the thorough revamp of the company’s strategic approach to operations.

Bakish detailed his rationale behind the plan unveiled last month to focus most of Viacom’s TV resources on six core cable channels. And he talked up the importance of Paramount working much more closely with its cable siblings during a 40-minute Q&A Wednesday held as part of the annual Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference.

Bakish was asked by Morgan Stanley’s Ben Swinburne about the status of the Paramount job search following last week’s formal announcement that Brad Grey was stepping down as chairman-CEO of the studio after 12 years. But he didn’t offer much in the way of details.

“I’ve met some exciting candidates,” Bakish said. “I believe that’s actionable in the near term.”

Paramount’s financial performance has been alarming to Viacom investors in the past few years, with a $450 million loss registered for fiscal 2016. Part of the turnaround plan for the studio is a slate-financing deal with Chinese investors announced last month. That influx of capital will help the studio fund big-ticket productions at a time when the parent company is wrestling with a nearly $12 billion debt load. The deal amounted to the sale of a 25% interest in Paramount’s upcoming film slate, a transaction that will naturally bring scrutiny to how the coin is allocated. “It’s good discipline for the studio,” Bakish said. “Selling 25 percent of the slate is the right place to be.”

Bakish noted that the Paramount Television unit launched in 2013 has been a bright spot. Paramount Television should hit the break-even mark this year and turn a profit in 2018. The division headed by Amy Powell has 13 programs in various stages of development for Viacom and non-Viacom owned outlets. “It’s had a nice ramp,” Bakish said. “The studio should be in this business.”

On the cable side, Bakish reiterated his view that the portfolio of 25 domestic channels were operating in fiefdoms without a coordinated plan for making the most of the company’s resources. His approach to tackling the problem was informed by his experience in taking over the Viacom International Media Networks division in 2007.

“We had a confederation of independent nations,” Bakish said. “We did not leverage our global scale.”

Bakish has emphasized the importance of Paramount working more closely with the six “flagship” cable brands — MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount Network (the soon to be remodeled Spike TV) to develop cross-platform properties. Paramount and Nickelodeon are working on a plan for an animated feature, “Amusement Park,” to be released next year followed by a Nickelodeon series of the same name in 2019. Bakish said three more TV-branded movie projects are on the drawing board.

That kind of collaboration will also help Viacom keep talent in the fold. Bakish pointed to the sleeper success of director Jordan Peale’s Universal-distributed dark comedy “Get Out” at the box office this past weekend as an example of a talent relationship might’ve been kept in the Viacom family. Peale gained fame as one half of the improv duo on Comedy Central’s “Key and Peale.”

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