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ViacomCBS’s Parts Might Add Up to a Greater Whole

Tara Lachapelle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “House of Brands” probably wasn’t the best choice of words by ViacomCBS Inc. in describing its streaming-TV strategy. It’s best for a company in its position to avoid what sounds eerily similar to another phrase — one that implies a shaky structure doomed to collapse. It’s also best not to remind people of the name of a hit series created by Netflix Inc., the very symbol of the end of times for cable networks like those owned by ViacomCBS. 

But the company may be on to something. Its house — er, collection — of TV and film brands were slapped together, just like its name, through the December merger of Viacom and CBS. Together, they have the potential to constitute an attractive streaming-TV offering for consumers different from existing ones. That means there’s at least hope for ViacomCBS, and that’s truly all investors and employees could reasonably expect right now. 

On Thursday, ViacomCBS posted unflattering results for its first quarter as a unified company, and its shares plunged 18%. It’s a reflection of the difficulty of stitching together two businesses with much different cultures — a challenge for any chief executive officer, but one that’s exacerbated in this case by the historical tensions between the two sides and the industry streaming wars that have threatened to make both of them irrelevant. Analysts predicted at least $7 billion of revenue for the period ended Dec. 31, but ViacomCBS took in only $6.87 billion amid a drop in traditional TV viewers, lower political advertising spending and a weak box-office showing. The merger closed on Dec. 5.

But there were slivers of good news. Among them was the company’s announcement that it’s creating a new subscription-video service that will expand on the $6-a-month CBS All Access app ($10 for the commercial-free version) by stuffing it with more content from other parts of the empire. The company referred to it as a “House of Brands” product, the idea being that it can bring together its various entertainment, news, sports and film properties to reach a wider audience. The company’s biggest assets are CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, Paramount Pictures and Showtime. It also owns Pluto TV, the advertising-supported service for consumers who want to stream for free, while Showtime targets the higher-end of the market with an $11-a-month online subscription.

The strategy sounds a bit like the approach Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal is taking with its Peacock product, which is set to launch in April. Peacock will have a diverse library — everything from “Parks and Recreation” to “Jurassic Park” plus new shows — that most people will be able to access for free, with the option of paying $10 a month to cut out the ads. In contrast, Disney+, the fast-growing streaming service from Walt Disney Co., has more narrow appeal as it’s predominantly geared toward children and Marvel and “Star Wars” superfans; it has also shunned advertisers (for now). Peacock mimics the breadth of Netflix, whereas Disney+ looks more like a niche add-on option for Netflixers. 

A tremendous challenge for all the media giants, but especially ViacomCBS, is deciding where to put their content. ViacomCBS needs to continue to nourish its cable networks, the biggest moneymakers, while choosing which titles to save for CBS All Access to drive subscriber growth and which to sell to rival streaming services that are willing to pay for them. For example, the Paramount division previously produced the popular — and controversial — series “13 Reasons Why” for Netflix, a show that could have also appealed to MTV’s audience and potentially would have been a good fit for the expansion of CBS All Access. In that sense, it’s as if the different units within ViacomCBS are competing with one another. 

For once, though, Viacom and CBS are working under one clear leader, which is probably the biggest positive development following years of infighting and drama at both entities, both controlled by the Redstone family. Bob Bakish, Viacom’s well-liked, hard-nosed CEO of the last three years, is now in charge of the merged company, while Joe Ianniello, who had been Leslie Moonves’s No. 2 at CBS, is leaving next month. Moonves was ousted in September 2018 after a slew of sexual-harassment allegations came to light, ultimately paving the way for the merger of CBS and Viacom. Ianniello, though instrumental in getting the deal done — if only for the outrageous pay package used to placate him — was a symbol of the old regime and a possible wrench in Bakish’s salvage plan.

Bakish has a lot of work to do, and fast. But his idea isn’t a bad one.  

To contact the author of this story: Tara Lachapelle at tlachapelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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