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Activist Viacom Shareholder Calls For New Chairman

An activist shareholder has urged Viacom to replace its chairman, Sumner Redstone, and other top board members and senior managers, while pursuing new deals that he believes would help it gain momentum in a challenging operating climate.

Eric Jackson of SpringOwl Asset Management suggested in a 99-slide presentation posted on LinkedIn Tuesday that Redstone, Philippe Dauman, Viacom’s chief executive; and Tom Dooley, Viacom’s chief operating officer, be replaced with new leadership, along with the company’s board of directors. He also urged the company to consider allowing an entity like Alibaba Group or Amazon to invest in its Paramount movie-studio unit and to mull the possibility of a merger with AMC Networks, the owner of the AMC, IFC and Sundance cable networks.

SpringOwl’s chances of advancing its agenda are unlikely. It owns only a small amount of Viacom stock, while Redstone’s National Amusements Inc. controls a majority of the entertainment company’s voting stock. Even so, his proposals are indicative of growing shareholder dissatisfaction with the company, which also operates MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, among other outlets.

“Viacom’s board and management team are completely focused on delivering long-term value to shareholders. We are looking to the future and the opportunities ahead,” the company said in a statement. “We are encouraged by the growth in our strong international business, the ratings upswings at most of our networks, Paramount’s strong start in 2016, our leadership position in advertising technology and other positive recent developments.”

Separately, a shareholder lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Delaware Chancery Court, alleges that the top executives at Viacom and CBS Corp, also controlled by Redstone, have placed loyalty to the chairman over duties to shareholders. Viacom said the suit was “without merit.”

Viacom shares were up more than 3% in recent trading, even as the Dow Jones Industrial Index was down.

A large Viacom shareholder, Mario Gabelli, in December raised issues about how Viacom should operate. Redstone’s health has become the source of speculation due to a lawsuit wending its way through the courts filed on behalf of a former girlfriend, Manuela Herzer. Gabelli at the time urged Viacom executives to be more transparent with shareholders about Redstone’s condition and the way in which the company is operating.

Viacom has been hit hard in recent years by new trends in viewership. Its networks cater to younger viewers – the same demographic that has embraced new technologies like mobile tablets as well as streaming-video services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Viacom has in recent months worked to shore up its operations by offering new technologies and services that allow advertisers to make deals based on new forms of measurement and placement as well as to create commercials tailored to the programs and networks in which they appear.

SpringOwl’s Jackson said that if his suggestions were taken, Viacom stock could rise as much as 135% over current levels. He also called for the company to reduce operating expenses further and to take more creative risks in developing content.

 

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