Can ViacomCBS compete? Your mission, should you choose to accept it: be different or self destruct.
Can ViacomCBS compete? Your mission, should you choose to accept it: be different or self destruct.
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Jason Hirschhorn, curator August 15, 2019
quote of the day
Maverick is a word which appeals to me more than misfit. Maverick is active, misfit is passive.
Alan Rickman
rant n' rave

I got thrown out of high school. Bounced around colleges. But I got my masters degree at MTV NETWORKS, a division of VIACOM. THE division. In March of 2000, I sold my company, MISCHIEF NEW MEDIA to them. Why? Well, the cash didn’t suck, but really because I wanted to work there. I had grown up with MTV. Executives like JUDY MCGRATH and TOM FRESTON were no different to me than REGGIE JACKSON was when he played with the YANKEES. On my first day, NSYNC had just released their new album and there were 20,000 fans lining TIMES SQUARE to see them walk into the building for TRL. My first meeting was with now-CEO BOB BAKISH who offered me this advice: Maybe don't wear sweatpants to work. A pretty crazy first day. I thought I was going to walk into a building filled with geniuses that wore lab coats. Within days I realized how wonderfully dysfunctional the place was. That’s a compliment. People loved working there and their take on things was just nuts. Another compliment. So nuts, I often thought it was a miracle anything got on-air. Like that famous scene in BROADCAST NEWS. This wasn’t a front. The company thrived because of this attitude. The crazies ran the channels, but they were partnered with stone-cold business people. These were the internet execs before the internet. They disrupted broadcast with cable. Not just in distribution but how they created programming. How they told stories. From shows to promos. Some forget how influential this group was. Even digital media new jacks could learn something from studying that history. Towards the end of my tenure, I could sense insecurity amongst the leadership. They said the right things, they wanted to innovate and take us into the new digital era. But now they had billions of dollars at stake. Not like they did when they started out as poor mavericks. And when you’re poor, you have to take risks and be more creative. Then some key leadership left. And the new CEO had no vision, no idea how to motivate and inspire. No sense of letting the crazies run free to create. MTV Networks was no more. Viacom was becoming more irrelevant in the digital era. An era that they should have owned. I often cautioned that the problem was that these were executives that guided the world on what was cool. They couldn’t quite swallow becoming a platform that enabled the audience to tell each other what’s cool. More so, understanding that their future lies beyond television. As BRUCE LEE advised, "You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot." Just like the original MTV logo. The eyeballs were moving. That, investment and patience were their Achilles heals... Then there was the battle for VIACOM. SHARI REDSTONE needed to doggedly wrestle back control from the mismanagement. She did with a lot of help. She put in a new capable CEO in Bakish. And this week, she finally won another phase. Combining VIACOM and CBS again. In one of the most unnecessary conscious uncouplings in media history. The band is now back together. Viacom had the culture to not only survive in the digital era but to thrive. Why did it fall and how will it come back? Why am I telling you all this? In the summer of 2016, Matt Ball wrote a REDEF ORIGINAL on the erosion of Viacom. Over the preceding years, its time watched had fallen a third, its share price was down nearly twice as much, and morale felt even lower. Even though we felt many criticisms of Viacom were unfair (and fair), there was no need to further reiterate its hardships and mistakes (and my views on the leadership of then-CEO PHILIPPE DAUMAN were particularly well known). And so we ultimately decided not to publish – and returned to writing about how various players can succeed. 2019 feels different. I’ve been to the 1515 Broadway HQ in the last year and you can feel it on every floor. So after a three-year wait and with the newly combined VIACOMCBS now announced, I wanted to finally release this piece with some minor updates. Here, you’ll understand what happened, why, and why we’re optimistic about the future. It’s an uphill battle, like steep. Not Sisyphean yet but as hard as the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE team breaking into the CIA. The attitude needs to be like ETHAN HUNT's "We're going to do this"... The scale is important, but you don’t win just because you have scale. Yes, the sum of the parts can be greater. But only if you use your chess pieces for the right moves. First, they don’t have scale yet compared to the likes of DISNEY and COMCAST. They will need to combine or buy more. Maybe MGM? They own BOND, one of the last great franchises that's gettable. MGM (disclaimer, I used to serve on their board) needs to be bought and they are in beyond dire need of leadership. Or the well-run STARZ to buoy SVOD. There are lots of scenarios as PETER KAFKA points out. And at some point, someone goes for ViacomCBS. They need to figure out their AVOD/SVOD play. I don't recommend many brands. In fact, they need to look at what brands to retire at the channels as well. They need to figure out what content to sell as arms dealers and what to keep for their own services. Strengthen their IP ties between divisions. While NICKELODEON has had mixed success in movies, I have no doubt they will find their way to success with a few more tries. So many more things to consider. And I will, over the next months, suggest some. But hear this, as the great MASTER P. once said, “… be a leader, not a follower." Get more mavericks. Viacom’s empire was never built by following the roadmaps or culture of its competitors. It can’t and shouldn’t go after the same audience, with the same content, under the same business models, teams and ambitions as everyone else. To chart a path forward, Viacom needs to look back at its history. It always thrived by programming for “who,” by experimenting with different content formats and models, and asking itself what does a new delivery model allow us to do that we could never do before. F*** the rules. And it now has more tools, talent, and assets through which it can reinvent itself. Stay tuned... Happy Birthday to PATRICK KEANE, CORI BERGER, J.D. HEILPRIN, GINNY BOND FEIN, FARAZ ANGHA, SUCHIN BENDER, RACHEL HAOT, WARREN CHAO, and TUHIN ROY.

Jason Hirschhorn, curator

August 15, 2019