CBS chief creative officer David Nevins expects a “natural transition” over the next few months as George Cheeks takes over as president and CEO of CBS Entertainment Group and outgoing acting CEO Joe Ianniello departs the company.
“I’ve known George and I think he and I will work really well together,” Nevins told Variety on Friday morning at a panel held by the Television Academy and its Council of Former Chairs. “We’ve never worked together, but we have a mutual close friend in common. He’s really smart and a good guy, and he’s going to be a good unifier… I feel really good about it.”
As for Ianniello, who took over CBS after Leslie Moonves was removed from the company in 2018, Nevins lauded the exec for his tenure: “He took over CBS under difficult circumstances, and did a great job in stabilizing and bringing the company together, and then getting [the CBS-Viacom merger] done, which had many starts and stops.”
Ianniello had been chief operating officer of CBS since 2013, but had limited programming experience, which is why he elevated Nevins to focus on the company’s creative side. Besides continuing to oversee Showtime, Nevins now provides creative oversight across CBS assets, including CBS, CBS TV Studios and CBS All Access. “This job didn’t exist at CBS in the old regime, where there were a lot of spokes off a central hub,” he said. “And it’s really helpful as these organizations get larger and more complicated.”
Asked to give a report on ViacomCBS, which officially re-merged in December, Nevins said the combined company is still “in early innings. We’re two months in, and I think it is definitely going to be one company. It’s already working that way. It’s going to roll out in the course of the year in terms of what our approach to the market is, what our consumer approach is. Any concern that these companies weren’t going to meld and that they’d run the way they did last time they were together — which was really as two separate [entities] — I think that it’s really clear it’s not going to be that way [this time].”
Nevins pointed to a new content council, which he said “is working quite well so far.” Early synergies include airings of “Star Trek: Picard” on Pluto TV, Nickelodeon fare on CBS All Access and repeats of “The Late Late Show With James Corden” on Comedy Central.
“We have so many different platforms from MTV to Paramount Pictures to the CW to CBS and Showtime, to make sure that people are talking to each other,” he said. “Talent can go where they want to go, and we can figure out the best platform for any particular idea. We feel like at ViacomCBS, one of our great competitive advantages is the fact that we have a lot of attractive platforms, not one thing. Is it a young adult show for The CW, or is it better for streaming and All Access? Helping to make those decisions and helping to make sure that everybody is coordinated in a way that even in the smaller CBS of old, where it was really Showtime/CBS/CW, those things never connected. Now they’re connecting in a big way. Everybody is dealing with each other.”
At the same time, Nevins said it’s important to maintain the distinctiveness of the brands inside the company. “Nickelodeon, Showtime, BET, they all mean something,” he said. “So the goal is not to have some uber ViacomCBS brand, it’s a collection of brands. And making sure that as we make this transition from a bundled MVPD world to a less bundled — but probably rebundled — more broadband-driven world, how do you preserve the strength of those brands but also make sure that they connect to each other?”
Nevins said his priorities now are to figure out ways the company as a whole can acquire “big, important intellectual properties” and attract major talent, while also figuring out what its content play ultimately will be.
“It’s clear what we’re already doing in the OTT space, in the broadband space, but that strategy is going to evolve,” he said. “And so we need to evolve in a way that preserves the strengths of our brands, our company but then sets us up for the next epoch of how media is delivered.”
For now, ViacomCBS has been both selling content to other platforms (such as its $500 million “South Park” deal with HBO Max) while also growing OTT platforms like CBS All Access. Nevins calls it a “walking and chewing gum at the same time” strategy, which still holds.
“In a big company you have to deal with complexity and there’s not one black or white,” he said. “We’re going to hold it all or we’re going to sell it all. The truth is every large media company is going to do some degree of exploiting it on their own platforms and some degree of selling it to other people’s platforms. I still believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time.” But, he added, it’s up to ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish to share what the company’s strategy will ultimately look like.
One in-house streaming property that Nevins is particularly proud of is the recent launch of “Picard,” which he said is now CBS All Access’ biggest debut ever. (The streamer has said “Picard” set a new record for total streams, up more than 115% over previous record holder “Star Trek: Discovery,” but hasn’t shared specific numbers.)
“I’m thrilled with the rollout and acceptance of ‘Picard,'” Nevins said. As for the growing world of “Star Trek” in general, “I think it’s been well handled, the slow roll out and expansion of the universe, in different kinds of shows. One of the issues is how TV and movies will co-exist and we’re working on that. It’s much easier now that we’re all together, there’s a lot of good communication and creative coordination.”
Meanwhile, Nevins paid tribute to late CBS/ABC/NBC entertainment leader Fred Silverman, who died Thursday: “A lot of us owe a great debt to Fred Silverman, who invented so many of the practices in the way networks still operate. He had an incredible career.”
And Nevins also discussed his relationship with late basketball great Kobe Bryant, who produced the documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse” for Showtime. Nevins recalled how Bryant’s involvement grew on the project, and the star’s interest in becoming a media mogul after retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We had a couple of dinners where he would just ask me every detail about how the business works,” Nevins said. “The kinds of things we’re talking about now. He started watching Showtime because he wanted to be able to ask me questions about Showtime — about the development of ‘Ray Donovan’ and ‘Homeland.'”
Nevins said Bryant, who ultimately won an Oscar for his “Dear Basketball” short, “was real [in producing] in the same way that he was on the basketball court: super attention to detail, he really wanted to understand the process, wanted to break down the process. [His death] was hard to process.”
At the Grammy Awards, which aired on CBS this Sunday just hours after Bryant’s death, Nevins was there and watched as producers Ken Ehrlich and Ben Winston reworked the show’s open with host Alicia Keys.
“Watching the two of them, with a few writers and Alicia, rework how they were going to open the show, what they were going to say, and how they were going to handle it on the fly was really the best of live television,” Nevins said. “It was an amazing thing to see. The goal all along with the Grammys this year was to increase the level of jaw-dropping talent and performance, which I think they accomplished. And the other goal was real human emotion. There’s something about the Grammys where because it’s music and more performance-based, you can get more genuine human emotion. They were already going down that path. I think the way Alicia handled it and the way that a number of other people that night handled it was really raw in the way that’s rare in this day and age.”