Viacom’s Agency Upfront Dinners Will Focus on Company Growth, Not the Potential CBS Merger

WhoSay and VidCon acquisitions, plus digital and event pushes, offer new opportunities for marketers

Paramount Network's upcoming Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, will be Viacom's biggest scripted project ever. Paramount Network
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As Viacom’s board of directors negotiates with CBS on a potential merger, the company’s CEO, Bob Bakish, and network presidents are focused on this year’s round of agency upfront dinners, which kick off tonight.

The Presidents Dinners will focus on how far Viacom has come in the past year and not whether the company will reunite with CBS. In addition to ratings gains on several networks, the company’s recent acquisitions of WhoSay and VidCon, along with an aggressive push in the digital and event spaces, will offer new opportunities for marketers.

Viacom has opted to forego big upfront events, as it did last year—aside from its Nickelodeon presentation in March—in favor of intimate dinners with agencies over the next several weeks, during which the network presidents, ad sales chief Sean Moran and Bakish will make their pitch to marketers. (BET, which held a separate event last year in addition to participating in the Presidents Dinners, chose to forego its stand-alone presentation this year.)

While last year’s approach was key to selling buyers on Bakish’s new vision for Viacom—focusing on the company’s “flagship six” networks with global revenue potential: BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount—Moran, head of marketing and partner solutions for Viacom, said this year’s dinners will highlight how those moves have already yielded results.

“We’re accelerating on our promise of bringing the best content to our customers, no matter where they are,” Moran said. The company has the largest share of key demos—including adults 18-49, adults 18-34, Hispanics 18-49, African-Americans 18-49, teens 12-17 and kids 2-11—among all cable portfolios.

Bakish will once again be in attendance at the dinners. “It was a big part of his mission that we should do these again,” Moransaid. “I’ve never seen or heard about a CEO who’s been so accessible to the ad community.”

Viacom is one of several media companies heading into this upfront that could look considerably different next year if it merges with CBS. Last week, CBS made the first merger proposal, which valued Viacom below its market price. Viacom countered yesterday and reportedly asked CBS to raise its bid by $2.8 billion.

However, Moran said Viacom’s possible future with CBS won’t be part of his upfront pitch to buyers. “There’s no news as it relates to the upfront, and the possibility of what could happen,” he said. “But we’re excited about our own position, because we feel like we’re in a much stronger position this year than we were last year, and how all the brands and the flagship six are doing, both from a ratings perspective and a multiplatform perspective. So at Viacom, we feel bullish coming into the upfront.”

Moran also won’t be talking about the OTT service Bakish discussed on a February earnings call and said at the time that Viacom would be launching it later this year. “We’re not going to market with it currently, but we’re monitoring the development of that really closely and we’re excited about the possibilities of it,” Moran said.

While the industry worries about fragmentation, “we made a conscious effort to embrace that a while ago, so we see the fragmentation as something that we’ve turned into a strength,” Moran said.

To that end, company has made an “aggressive push” into digital content, Moran said, with its Viacom Digital Studios, which creates short-form and long-form content for Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Viacom Digital Studios, headed by Kelly Day, will have a presence at this year’s NewFronts.

Viacom bought influencer marketing company WhoSay in January. Moran said that “allows us to bring solutions from a social media standpoint 52 weeks a year,” not just tent-pole events. “Through the WhoSay arm, we’re handling triple the amount of RFPs [request for proposals] that we had in the past from the industry.”

Two months ago, Viacom acquired VidCon, the world’s largest conference for YouTube and other online video content producers. “It’s got such a vibrant community that made so much sense for us, and we’ll bringing that to market in this upfront as well,” Moran said.

Under Bakish’s direction, the flagship networks are expanding into the festival space. Comedy Central is holding its second annual ClusterFest June 1-3 in San Francisco, while Nickelodeon’s SlimeFest makes its U.S. debut on June 9 and 10 in Chicago, and MTV brings back Spring Break next year.

“Those together really bring us into this continued pivot where we see the relationship going beyond television in the way that you’re going to touch base with your consumer,” Moran said, “and we feel we do that better than anybody.”

Advanced advertising will have a larger role in this upfront. Viacom Vantage has tripled its business two years in a row and has been adopted at every major holding company. And OpenAP, which Moran created with his counterparts at Fox and Turner, now has more than 750 registered users.

“The adoption of Open AP is really on a roll,” he said. “The reaction in the community has been great, and we believe in the not too distant future, there’s going to be some great announcements about the evolution of Open AP.”

Among the upfront-related announcements at Viacom’s individual networks:

  • Paramount Network launched in January, with 30 percent fewer ads for its original series, like Waco, than Spike, the network it replaced. “The unique positioning with the ad loads was very successful,” said Moran. Going forward, the ads will be thematically relevant to the show, like ’70s-themed spots for American Woman, which debuts June 7. And Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner and is Viacom’s biggest scripted project ever, premieres on June 20.
  • Comedy Central is the No. 1 cable entertainment network in total day among men 18-34 and men 18-24. After spending last year solidifying its late-night lineup (The Daily Show With Trevor Noah was the top-rated late-night talk show among millennial men in 2017), the network is focusing on scripted and sketch primetime series, including Corporate (already renewed for Season 2), South Side (a workplace comedy in Chicago) and a new sketch comedy series Alternatino (from Arturo Castro, based on his experiences as a Latino millennial in the U.S.).
  • MTV just finished its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year primetime growth in adults 18-34, for the first time in seven years. Last week’s debut of Jersey Shore Family Vacation was the network’s highest-rated premiere in six years. Next year, the network will bring back its Spring Break event, and is planning a Yo! MTV Raps block party in New York this June ahead of reviving the show as a daily, digital series.
  • BET’s increased focus on scripted programming has helped fuel three quarters of ratings growth in the 18-49 demo. Upcoming shows include The Bobby Brown Story miniseries, a series Games Divas Play (based on the Angela Burt-Murray book about three women in the world of professional sports) and docuseries Ladies Night, which follows ’90s girls groups En Vogue, Salt N’ Pepa and SWV as they embark on a national tour.
  • Nickelodeon will reiterate many of the themes from last month’s upfront, where it announced a Blue’s Clues revival (which will not be hosted by John Cena) and the SlimeFest music festival.
  • VH1 has enjoyed 10 consecutive quarters of growth in adults 18-49, and is home to six of the top 10 unscripted series in cable, including RuPaul’s Drag Race, Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party and the Love & Hip Hop franchise.
  • As Nashville winds down this summer, CMT is moving its brand away from scripted and into “open country,” with shows like new unscripted series Music City.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.