As the owner of the Paramount movie studio, Viacom is often on the lookout for drama. Who knew its newest potboiler would come from one of the units it got paired with as a result of its merger with CBS?
CBS News is in the business of producing “60 Minutes” and “Face The Nation,” but in recent days the division has had its collective hands full with some kind of soap opera: Gayle King, one of its most prominent on-air journalists, was threatened online by Snoop Dogg as well as others after a snippet of an interview she conducted with WNBA player Lisa Leslie about the death of former basketball great Kobe Bryant went viral. The short clip that got passed around online, just one short exchange in a much longer interview, showed King asking Leslie about sexual-assault charges levied against Bryant in an earlier part of his career. After Snoop Dogg’s threats, King took to Twitter and Instagram to explain her work further, and to take CBS News to task for isolating that snippet from the rest of the interview.
The twist: Both King and Snoop Dogg work for the newly-merged ViacomCBS.
Snoop Dogg and home-arts guru Martha Stewart are partners in “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party,” and stand among the coterie of reality-show luminaries that stock the schedules of VH-1 and MTV, two of the best-known cable networks in the Viacom lineup. King, meanwhile, has been charged with helping to revive “CBS This Morning” in the wake of ratings declines it suffered after the ouster of Charlie Rose. When Viacom merged with CBS a few weeks ago, King was one of the company staffers who stood alongside CEO Bob Bakish as he rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq to celebrate the deal.
Whether the company sees more value in one personality or the other remains to be seen. A spokeswoman for VH1 did not respond to query sent Saturday night about the status of Snoop Dogg or his program with the network. And a spokesman for ViacomCBS did not respond to a question about how the parent company viewed the controversy. Snoop Dogg in a video Saturday tried to walk back his comments about King, saying: “I don’t want no harm to come to her.”
That isn’t likely to soothe a legion of veteran TV-journalists and producers who have come out to support King. Over the weekend, Mika Brzezinski from MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” actively called upon ViacomCBS to respond. Two former lead producers of “CBS This Morning” – Chris Licht and Ryan Kadro – took to Twitter to stand alongside their former co-worker. Both continue to work with or for CBS. And an array of prominent CBS News anchors, ranging from “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Tony Dokoupil to CBS News correspondent David Begnaud to “Face The Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan, made their ire at Snoop Dogg’s attack well known via Twitter.
The Viacom side of the new company has not had to deal with the vicissitudes of running a news division for years. Sure, Linda Ellerbee hosted a “Nick News” series devoted to issues of importance to kids on Nickelodeon, and MTV long featured people like Kurt Loder at the helm of MTV News, but neither of these efforts were extant in the modern era, when every moment of each TV-news program is ripe for pass-along commentary and instant outrage on social-media. Tabitha Soren never had to deal with going viral in the early 1990s when she interviewed politicians as part of MTV’s “Choose or Lose” voter registration initiative.
What would Anderson Cooper, Bret Baier or Nicolle Wallace give for that sort of opportunity today?
As the Viacom half of ViacomCBS is learning, news divisions are messy. They often draw controversy that threatens to overwhelm whatever else a corporation is grappling with at any moment. In 2017, for instance, the Walt Disney Company agreed to pay at least $177 million related to costs incurred in a lawsuit against its ABC News after it was accused of defamation in by a meat processor in the wake of a report about a beef product referred to as “pink slime.” CNN, while an integral driver of the profits of Time Warner, was used by the Trump administration to slow down AT&T’s acquisition of that media conglomerate. Fox Corp. had to grapple with advertiser defections from the primetime lineup of Fox News Channel in 2018 after remarks delivered by two of its primetime opinion hosts (the advertising was redeployed elsewhere on the network).
If ViacomCBS executives are doing any math in their heads, the numbers would appear to favor King. It’s easier to tie “CBS This Morning” to revenue and profit than it is to link Snoop Dogg’s program to the advertising and subscriber revenue generated by VH1. And King’s presence across the company could grow. She has already done primetime specials for CBS, and CBS News President Susan Zirinsky recently told Variety that she’s in the midst of discussing ideas about how CBS News content could be used on Viacom’s cable networks, noting that “several of them could involve our morning news talent.”
As with other kinds of commotion generated by social media, this too will likely pass. When it does, however, there will still be a phalanx of CBS News journalists – and reporters at rival organizations – looking to see whether the parent corporation has their collective back.