MCN Commentary & Analysis

How To Fix Viacom

“Be aggressive. Be Be Aggressive.”

It’s really that simple. And that complicated.

Viacom has been stuck in Neutral for sixteen years. There has been a lot of great work by a lot of great people during those sixteen years. Please don’t misunderstand. Lots and lots of sensational trees have grown in that Viacom forest in these last sixteen years. But the overriding and destructive philosophy that has reigned has been wheel-spinning of epic proportions.

CBS operated under a different energy than Viacom in this same period. It was split from Viacom (Paramount, Nickelodeon, MTV) in 2005. Les Moonves played CBS (which got Showtime and other TV ventures, including a very successful TV production business) aggressively throughout his tenure, which ended in testosterone. So there were serious problems there, too. But aggression was not one of them.

The first major deal in the Brad Grey Era, which started in 2005, was to do a “merger” with the financially problematic DreamWorks SKG that leaned heavily toward DreamWorks—including sending DW Animation off on its own, with only an output deal at Paramount—and even more troublingly, allowed DreamWorks to escape after three years.

The trouble with that is that Grey had made DreamWorks the center of the Paramount business, allocating a majority of resources to efforts that were jointly controlled, and failed to build an independent Paramount at the same time.

Grey’s first misstep was hiring Gail Berman as president of Paramount, a failed marriage that was not so much an indictment of Berman as it was a misunderstanding of chemistry. Rob Moore followed as vice chairman. He was an aggressive guy, but the mission was still not to build Paramount as a top-end studio so much as to clean up the mess from the DreamWorks deal as well manage the next wave of dominant players who caught Grey’s eye, starting with JJ Abrams. John Lesher was the next sacrificial lamb as production chief… for a year… before he was fired and then slandered by Nikki Finke at someone’s behest. Adam Goodman was the next whipping boy, overmatched by the job and eating shit for a situation of which he was not in control. Marc Evans would close the shop for Grey.

My point is not to diss the production chiefs who operated with their hands tied. Grey and those above were holding the reins and the company never got rolling at full speed at any point in the Grey/Philippe Dauman Era (or since). The DreamWorks deal was the best and the worst, because those were the best years of Grey’s run, but that also kept him from building the studio, if he even had that skill.

Since the end of Dauman and the exit and passing of Grey, the studio hasn’t felt muscular, with a single new franchise — A Quiet Place — in the last three years and a bunch of movies of varying significance sold off to Netflix and Hulu and others like the studio’s heart wasn’t in the game.

The studio has told the media that they were planning on Paramount+ for years. Every indication is that this is not true. On March 4, Paramount+ launched as Amazon launched Coming 2 America on their Prime streaming service. Meanwhile, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is looking like a six-plus Oscar nominee for Netflix in just a few weeks. On top of this, the studio announced that it will exit the theatrical window for their biggest movies and go to Paramount+ in 45 days… a strategy that has nothing to do with what strategy they have engaged so far.

And even the launch effort for Paramount+ feels half-hearted, cribbing from the unsuccessful launch campaign by HBO Max last fall.

So what would I see as aggressive at this point?

Well… although I personally don’t advocate this approach, if you are going to play off theatrical-release films as bait for streaming, go for it. Don’t launch the same day as Coming 2 America. Don’t tell people they should be excited about getting The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run for free when it was released last August across the globe.

The studio has nine movies they intend to release in 2021. Throw some red meat at Paramount+. Take the big loss on A Quiet Place II and make it a Paramount+ exclusive with a six-month commitment. Schedule Jackass 4, which is a hot title, but built for TV. Buy three or four movies just to premiere on Paramount+.

Or try this… offer three films of whatever size (one theatrical release and three exclusive films purchased for this purpose) that are otherwise only available in the PVOD window. So if A Quiet Place II opens Memorial Day weekend, offer it on Paramount+ by August 1 while it is available on PVOD for non-subs, along with a couple cheaper pick-ups (maybe buy something from Netflix). Do it again on September 1 with Top Gun 2 and two more.

Part of the madness of this moment is that studios have lost the confidence that viewing, at home, or going to theaters, is a habit no longer exclusively connected to individual titles. It’s at the heart of what is so wrongheaded about the HBO Max “throw all the movies at it” strategy. It’s been at the heart of why VOD has never been a major revenue stream for studios. If you have built up equity enough in a brand to get huge VOD numbers, great. But every movie is not a giant brand. Even the brands we are familiar with ebb and flow.

A lot of people have said, “Let’s go see the new Marvel movie.” But a lot of people also say, “Let’s go to the movies… what should we see?”

No one says, “Let’s stay home and watch TV, but let’s pay for another app that we haven’t downloaded yet.” The non-Netflix, non-Disney players will get there, but they will ride the paradigm shift away from expensive cable bundling to similarly expensive but more compelling bundles of apps. If you want to accelerate that, you have to offer more than just MORE.

You want to change the game? Make Paramount+ the place you can get CBS TV programming live from the east coast feed and the west coast feed.

You want to be known for live sports? Buy back the last two season of Sunday Ticket from flailing DirecTV and make a deal that goes past that with the NFL, to sell either an annual package or individual game or both for the games that CBS already produces every week. Viacom would eat at least $500 million doing that in the first year… but they are trying to make an impact, right?

You want people to think you are breaking the rules? Deliver more international sports and more international television and more international movies than anyone else.

You want people to find the kinks in your deep library? Find another way to deliver search results. Try real curation. Make it more interactive. Make it… gulp… fun!

What is the voice of Paramount as a movie studio? I don’t know. But whatever it is, make that The Thing, every bit as much as your IP. You know how Disney went from movie zero to movie hero under Eisner and Katzenberg? A series of highly similar comedies and high-concept dramas. You want to go cheap? Be the studio of young directors on tight budgets. You want to be showy? Make more CG movies. You want to blow people’s minds? Make three very different Star Trek movies at once.

Lose some money! Intentionally. It’s an investment in a bigger future. Take the loss and turn your studio into a service that audiences connect with. Decades ago, Paramount had a voice. It was Diller and Eisner’s voice. It was Simpson/Bruckheimer’s voice. It was Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe’s voice.

And you know what always happens, as if by magic? A couple of your projects that you expect nothing from will blow up and you don’t lose money after all.

A movie about the making of The Godfather? I’ll be first in line. I hope it’s great. But for a studio… FUCK OFF! No mass audience is going to care about your inside baseball.

Even with the Paramount+ launch, there is still constant speculation about who might buy Viacom for parts. Why? Not because a lot of very, very smart and talented people don’t work there. But because no one sees the wick from Mission; Impossible being lit at 5555 Melrose. It’s this massive business with all this talent and this great lot and a great history and it feels like it is just filling up space while others are chasing the future and winning the engagement with the past.

It’s not all the people who work there. It’s the attitude. And every time someone like me tries to find a way to argue that the newly remerged Viacom is turning a corner, some event occurs to argue that that it is just treading water.

Even CBS. Les Moonves is out. He ran hot. He had a problem with women. Gone. Good.

That was more than two years ago. Have we seen a single new idea out of CBS since then? A single change that feels like it’s post-Moonves? No. They paid Eliza Dushku a $10 million settlement and left her sexual harasser and his show on the air. More versions of old shows. Current game shows in prime time, as opposed to ABC reviving old ones. Same football slots. Same golf in the off-season. Sane women’s chat show as ABC had for two decades before CBS. “60 Minutes” steeped in harassment issues but nothing seems to have changed. Move Charlie Rose out… keep going.

Has Nickelodeon had a new hit in a decade? Is MTV even a music network? VH1 picked up “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Congrats!

Six of nine movies scheduled for Paramount this year are sequels or knock-offs of Viacom shows. Six of ten movies next year are also old news resurrected.

I know people are working their asses off throughout Viacom. Many, many talented people. I truly do not mean to show disrespect.

But no amount of talent can overcome the narrow, overly cautious, boring, old spigot that Viacom is trying to shove its content through with a superspecial nozzle that makes it look like a flood of cool, new stuff. This is the leadership of the studio. The money leadership.

If you play scared in the film and TV industry you can survive as a content provider. But you can’t survive as a major studio. Not forever.

And no matter how many launches and great speeches at investors conferences and big talk about the future, Paramount feels like it’s been playing scared for more than fifteen years and with Moonves’ exit (because of his own flaws and arrogance) and the merger, CBS also feels like it is playing scared. All of Viacom feels like it is trying to stay still so the shark won’t eat it.

“Be aggressive. Be Be Aggressive.”

4 Responses to “How To Fix Viacom”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    They seem to have forgotten they are in show business.

    How is it that Amazon understands show business better than Paramount and CBS?

  2. Hcat says:

    The problem is that Viacom is just plain lazy. Their corporate mission statement is “well people seem to like it?”. Comedy Central is still anchored by South Park and Daily Show. Nick by Spongebob. Same as it has been for decades. Their current CBS schedule has three shows that were spin off of JAG which premiered in 95. Their two biggest movie franchises were based on properties that were greenlit by Lucille Ball.
    This is not innovation, but simply an exploitation of a library. This is in their DNA. Before buying Paramount they merely syndicated the work of others which was easy money in the seventies and eighties, no risk and high reward and the office probably all lit out after lunch.

    But even if they lit a fire under themselves and got to work they are at a disadvantage. The core of Paramount, their function as a movie studio, is delivering the star vehicle. And that seems to be fading into the past as all the tentpoles seem to be geared as bringing already familiar stories to the screen (as as Viacom has already exhausted almost their entire library we will end us seeing more rugrats and another remake of Stepford). They should not remake Flashdance but find the new equivalent like they did with Save the Last Dance.

    The best twenty or thirty Paramount films of the Viacom era can easily go toe to toe against any other studio. There Will be Blood, Zodiac, Election, Clueless, etc. etc…. They know how to make good films, they just have to abandon treating it as a branding exercise and trying to use their movie studio to promote dying cable brands.

  3. cadavra says:

    But why single out Paramount? All the studios are doing the same thing: either remaking every library title they can–MGM being the worst offender here–or taking brand-extension to ludicrous extremes. If five years ago Colin Jost had announced on “Weekend Update” that Warners would be launching an “Alfred The Butler” TV series, everyone would have laughed. But then they DID do it. How soon before we get an Aunt Harriet sitcom with Ruth Buzzi? Let’s face it: nobody wants “original” anymore. Just that simple.

  4. Hcat says:

    I think he is putting Paramount on the chopping block because

    A) Their streamer is premiering (or rebranding) this week.

    B) While all the studios have feast or famine cycles (not MGM, they haven’t fit the definition of a studio for some time), Paramount has been suffering for over a decade. With all the buyouts and mergers they are now a significantly smaller company than Uni/Comcast, Disney, and ATT/Warner. They are now closer in size to Lionsgate than they are to Comcast.

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