George Cheeks, vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios, has stepped down after nearly eight years with the company and is poised to join ViacomCBS as a successor to Joe Ianniello as the head of CBS’ operations within the newly merged company, sources familiar with the situation tell Variety.
The surprise move on the CBS side of the ViacomCBS ledger comes as the company is preparing for the first of several rounds of layoffs that are expected to be implemented as part of the post-merger cost saving campaign. More internal restructuring and streamlining efforts among mid-level executives is expected to be unveiled as soon as Wednesday.
Representatives for ViacomCBS did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Tuesday night.
Sources close to the situation tell Variety that the head count cuts will fall hardest in administrative, back-office and support functions that are duplicated now that the two halves of the Redstone family’s media empire were united again last month. ViacomCBS is under pressure to deliver $500 million in merger synergy savings within two years.
Cheeks, who had in October shifted into a vice chair role under Bonnie Hammer amid a leadership shakeup that saw Hammer overseeing all broadcast and cable studio operations. Cheeks had prior to that spent a year as co-chair of the NBC Entertainment broadcast division alongside current network head Paul Telegdy, following the exit of Bob Greenblatt in September 2018.
ViacomCBS’ recruitment of Cheeks is a clear sign of planning for a transition in the management of the CBS assets. Ianniello is the CBS Corp. veteran who was given a rich 15-month contract extension as part of the merger agreement that reunited the companies. His long-term future with the company has been a question mark ever since the shakeup in September 2018 that saw longtime leader Leslie Moonves ousted on sexual misconduct allegations amid a battle with controlling shareholder Shari Redstone for control of the company.
Once Redstone prevailed and reshaped the governance of CBS Corp., paving the way for the Viacom stock-swap merger, Ianniello had been expected to depart. But he became a key asset during the merger negotiations as the CBS board of directors insisted on a prominent role for Ianniello for at least a year to help ensure a smooth management segue for assets that are vital to churning out earnings for ViacomCBS. Ianniello’s contract is believed to run through early 2021. It’s known to have incorporated a bonus of up to $70 million pledged under the Moonves regime, and possibly additional retention compensation for re-upping amid the frenzy of the merger.
Cheeks, in his most recent role, had focused on Universal TV and UCP while continuing to oversee late-night programming for NBC. He has occupied a variety roles since joining NBC from Viacom in 2012, including co-president of Universal Cable Productions and Wilshire Studios alongside Dawn Olmstead, and president of late-night programming at NBC Entertainment, overseeing “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
At Viacom, Cheeks served as executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel of Viacom Music and Entertainment Groups, Content Distribution and Marketing, as well as head of standards and practices.
The news of his departure comes just a month after Variety exclusively learned that NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke would be stepping down, with NBCUniversal film and entertainment chief Jeff Shell tapped as his successor.
The Wall Street Journal first reported Cheeks’ move to ViacomCBS.