Since he became CEO of Viacom nearly two years ago, Bob Bakish has been trying to clean up the mess previous management left behind. His efforts, from refocusing on six flagship networks—including MTV, Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon—to building out a digital studio and making acquisitions (notably AwesomenessTV), have helped stabilize the flailing youth-oriented media giant.
Viacom spent the summer in an awkward limbo. The company, and Bakish, were pulled into a war between former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves and Shari Redstone, whose family company, National Amusements, controls Viacom and CBS. But the drama came to an end over the weekend, when CBS and National Amusements announced an agreement that upended CBS's board of directors and prevents NAI from proposing a merger between the two companies for at least two years.
That leaves Bakish to focus on making networks like MTV relevant again and positioning the entire company for a digital future.
Bakish sat down with Ad Age in August prior to the settlement. A Viacom spokeswoman declined to comment on the settlement on Monday. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Were you a big TV house growing up?
I chuckled that HGTV just bought the Brady house because we used to watch "The Brady Bunch" way back.
You studied engineering in school. Did you imagine this is what you would be doing?
No. I went to engineering school. I went to business school. But both of them taught you to think about problems in different ways.
When you started as CEO, Viacom was in a precarious position. Ratings have rebounded a bit, but the problems plaguing the media industry aren't going away. How do you work through that?
One of the things that was true for Viacom circa November of 2016 was it hadn't had a plan for a long time. Our plan today has three parts: growing share and margins in our traditional business; accelerating our participation in next-generation platforms, distributions and solutions for advertising; and diversifying the business leveraging IP.
It's unlikely ratings will ever significantly rebound for linear TV, so how do you grapple with that?
There continues to be a strong opportunity to take share and grow viewing in TV. Take MTV. Again, November of '16, people were like, "It's over. It's not culturally relevant. Less and less people watch it every year." That was not a result of some kind of inherent problem with the brand, but due to execution. They had shifted to a strategy of scripted that made no sense.
You have to thank "Jersey Shore."
Well, if you look at what's driven it, they had five of the top 10 unscripted shows on cable. One of them is "Jersey Shore." There was this article written about me recently saying, "All I want to do is use the old stuff." It's like, no. But you would be foolish not to take advantage of your library.