Viacom’s unkind cuts

Guest column

Viacom, that itsy bitsy media player, announced the inevitable last week, blowing away Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi and putting CBS Enterprises prexy Armando Nunez Jr. in charge of the conglom’s combined international television operation.

“This restructuring will help maximize our programming resources, efficiently streamline our overseas distribution and establish a programming pipeline that can have a huge impact in the global marketplace,” Viacom co-prexy/co-COO Leslie Moonves is quoted as saying apropos of the decision.

All this is undoubtedly true; however, I believe that in order to exploit an enormous library, one that indeed gets larger each day, a company requires more dedicated sales staff and overhead, not less.

The international biz used to be big on personal relationships. Top sales execs from the Hollywood studios, many of them well-traveled sophisticated sorts, devoted time to wining and dining the equally sophisticated sorts who were their program-buying customers at the leading TV stations around the world. The rationale: If buyers and sellers got on famously they were more likely to do business together.

The relationship factor may count for less nowadays in this more numbers-oriented, faster-paced biz, but it still helps to have folks who intimately know the product they’re trying to push and the needs of the overseas stations that might be in the market to acquire it.

Moonves is not alone in his desire to reduce overhead, and I have experienced that corporate pressure several times since I first started selling overseas in 1960 at Screen Gems.

Now I suffer from the enormous disadvantage of having “been there, done that” as an operating executive.

Although major parts of the distribution business have morphed into a “we are big and you will buy what we want to sell you” operation, there continues to be a need for sales people who know what they own and can discuss it properly with their customers.

This may be arcane reasoning, but then again, I am letting my experience cloud my thinking.

About 30 years ago, my Columbia Pictures CFO returned from lunch with the Fox CFO and asked me, “Why do we have so many people on staff in Canada, and Fox has very few?”

Much to his chagrin, I responded with a question: “How much business does Fox do in Canada?”

He stared at me and responded, “What difference does that make?”

To explain further would be useless, but this was among the many times I have been asked, “Do you really need so many people?”

The majority of my career has involved the selling of television content throughout the world. In order to do so effectively, I believed in having a sufficient number of people to get the job done properly.

I knew that the world had changed when, in the late ’70s at Columbia Pictures, a finance person announced to me, “Norman, your kind of people used to run this company, and now my kind of people are running it.”

I am not entirely certain what he meant by that, but I can guess.

Again, at Polygram some 20 years ago, a very senior staff exec (who was a lawyer) asked me in a budget meeting, “Norman, I don’t understand why you need ANY salesmen, because if you have good product, the customers will find you, right?”

This is the attitude that today’s media companies embrace. Points are scored by cutting overhead — and not by effectively increasing sales.

I was thrilled in 1968 when, at CBS, I sold the religious shows produced by Pamela Ilott to a station in South America. Why did I do that? It was my job and I understood what we owned.

The volume of content to be sold nowadays is enormous and requires a significant, dedicated sales team to handle it properly.

Horowitz is a media consultant and a former divisional president of MGM/UA, Polygram and Columbia Pictures.

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