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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.

 

 

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