×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Viacom, Under Scrutiny, Puts New Hope in TV Upfront

Sumner Redstone, founder of Viacom, is no longer much involved in the media giant’s daily business, but executives there continue to heed one of his long-held maxims: Content is king.

Over the last several weeks, the New York owner of MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon has unveiled big programming swings it hopes will help restore its cable networks to former glory. At CMT, executives are betting on a sudsy musical drama, “Million Dollar Quartet,” that examines the early lives of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. TV Land has signed veteran producer Darren Star, who backs its trendy series “Younger,” to a new contract. In days to come, Viacom will shine a spotlight on Comedy Central – the first time in that network’s history it will make a standalone pitch to advertisers — and then introduce a sweeping overhaul at flagship MTV.

“We really have supercharged what we are devoting to fresh, original content,” said Philippe Dauman, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Viacom, in an interview.

For Viacom, the new shows are paramount – and not just because the company owns a movie studio of the same name (in which it is seeking a potential investor). The New York media conglomerate has come under intense scrutiny from investors and advertisers in the face of the significant viewer defections it has suffered as young audiences  – its stock in trade – adopt new video-consumption behaviors not measured in traditional fashion. An ongoing legal skirmish involving Redstone and a former girlfriend has cast fog over the corporation’s activities. And its stock price has fallen significantly in the last few years. More than ever, Viacom needs to make the case that it can bring eyeballs back to the TV set, and if it can’t, make inroads in the new digital behaviors consumers have begun to exhibit.

“They are looking at every possible opportunity they can bring to the table,” said one media-buying executive familiar with negotiations between advertisers and Viacom-owned networks. “People talk about their shows, but on these new platforms, how do you capture that?”

If Viacom is going to put doubts to rest, this is the year to do it. Madison Avenue is expected to spend more on TV than it has in several years, owing to the fact that prices for commercials have risen significantly in recent months. Many companies, including CBS Corp., Comcast, Walt Disney and 21st Century Fox, are betting that this year’s upfront market – when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season – will be the most robust since 2011. “Advertisers are coming off paying on average 15% to 20% increases over upfront prices,” said Jeff  Lucas, who oversees Viacom ‘s ad sales, in an interview. “It’s the first time in five years we’ve seen that.” To avoid those rate hikes, Lucas said, more sponsors will try to lock in prices now.

Even so, Viacom’s ratings have proven troublesome.  For its fiscal year 2015, Viacom’s cable networks notched just a 1% increase in ad revenue, compared with 2% in both fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2013. “I am confident we are going to get back to overall ad revenue growth, because of the health of our networks,” said Dauman. “We are getting to the point where we are going to be growing because of our overall ratings.”

Viacom networks like Nickelodeon and VH1 have mustered gains in recent months. Comedy Central and MTV, however, have proven more troublesome. To lure advertising, the company has moved aggressively to develop new types of measurement that don’t always include what has been the industry standard: Nielsen ratings. Viacom has in recent weeks aligned with instant-messaging service Snapchat and media-metrics company ComScore to introduce new ad formats and new types of data to advertisers who want to align themselves with video that appears on TV, laptops and tablets. The company intends to unveil more in days to come, said Dauman.

“We continue to welcome Nielsen’s efforts and proof,” the executive said, but “we have now made a reality of making that just a part of the currency picture.” One new service Viacom offers, called Vantage, uses a range of consumer data to help advertisers place their commercials more precisely alongside different networks, programs and video venues. Viacom had 11 clients using the service, but expects to have as many as 33 in place this year, said Dauman, who expects to double that number by 2017. “It is the coming of age, in a significant way, of the new way of doing business,” he said. “It will become the normal way as we get into next year.”

Comedy Central and MTV are getting a good share of the company’s attention. “We are going to show advertisers what we are going to do to take them back to their rightful place,” Dauman said.

At Comedy Central, that means talking about late-night programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Nightly Show,” but also breakouts like “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer” as well as new concepts. “We have a lot of strong talent on that network outside of the late-night block, and this is our chance to take it out and show it off,” said Lucas. While ratings for Trevor Noah in “Daily” and Larry Wilmore in “Nightly” have trailed those of their predecessors, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, by a significant margin, Dauman said the shows are capturing a younger set of viewers than in the recent past.

MTV is set for what Dauman called “a significant reimagining of the brand,” which will be showcased to advertisers later this spring.  He said Viacom would lead marketers through a new “MTV experience” that will be unlike the typical upfront presentation, where TV-network executives run through a list of programs and trot out the celebrities who star in them.

MTV has been placed under a new president, Sean Atkins, who recently unveiled plans for a beefed-up MTV News unit that would dig deep into politics and popular culture.The network intends to focus more tightly on music and  “more distinctive culture-defining content,” Dauman said. “It will mark a new day for MTV.”

Whether the coming upfront will mark a new day for Viacom won’t be known definitively until this summer.

 

 

More TV

  • Dom Delport

    Vice Swings to Profit in the U.K., Eyes International Partnerships

    After a tumultuous period involving harassment scandals, job losses and restructuring, Vice has registered a small profit in the U.K., according to the company’s latest results. The uptick is welcome news for Vice as its new international boss, Dominique Delport, scopes out new production and partnership possibilities for the company’s content business. The U.K. was [...]

  • Stephen Colbert

    Stephen Colbert Mocks Former CBS Chief Leslie Moonves on 'Late Show'

    Leslie Moonves was known to take an active dislike of David Letterman making fun of him during that host’s tenure on CBS’ “The Late Show.” He probably isn’t enjoying being mentioned by Stephen Colbert either. Colbert used his monologue on Tuesday’s broadcast to poke fun at the former CBS Corp. CEO, who yesterday learned that [...]

  • Ruth Wilson and Idris Elba'Luther Series

    'Luther' Creator Neil Cross Working on Show's Movie Version, Idris Elba Says

    A movie version of crime series “Luther” is moving forward, with writer-creator Neil Cross working on the script, the show’s star Idris Elba confirmed at the launch of Season 5 in London. “We are really advancing on getting a movie version [of the show] up on the screen,” Elba said. “Neil is beavering away on [...]

  • THE VOICE -- "Blind Auditions" --

    TV News Roundup: NBC Announces Midseason Premiere Dates

    In today’s roundup, NBC reveals midseason premiere dates for six shows, including “The Voice.” DATES  NBC has announced midseason premiere dates for four returning and two new series. “The Voice” will air Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, Feb. 26 at 8 p.m., and March 5 at 8 p.m. It will return April 23 at 8 [...]

  • Penny Marshall Dead Obit

    Remembering Penny Marshall, Who Forged Her Own Path and Paved the Way for Others

    She was a natural comedian — fearless and funny, willing to trade on her natural Bronx brogue to craft a sassy and street-wise character that was tailor-made for sitcoms. But Penny Marshall, who died Monday night at the age of 75, proved throughout her long career that she had so much more in the way [...]

  • David Rhodes CBS News

    CBS News Faces New Challenges in Weeks Ahead

    At CBS News, President David Rhodes has a series of important decisions to make that could affect the trajectories of some of TV’s best-known news programs. As its parent company seeks to move forward from recent seismic events – the ouster of its former CEO, Leslie Moonves; a corporate probe into its workplace culture; and [...]

  • European Union Placeholder

    Europe, Hollywood Hail Landmark E.U. Territorial Licensing Agreement

    Industry organizations and major companies in Europe and Hollywood welcomed Tuesday a high-level European Union agreement that in large part preserves producers’ ability to sell movies and TV shows on an exclusive territory-by-territory basis. Territorial licensing is a financial backbone of the film and TV business in Europe. Recognition of such licensing came last Thursday in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content