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Bob Bakish, ViacomCBS and the streaming war

The entertainment giant is comfortably placed with Pluto, Paramount+ and Paramount + Essential.

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New Delhi: Over the last few weeks, a spate of mergers and acquisitions has taken the media and entertainment industry by storm. First WarnerMedia and Discovery, then Amazon and MGM - as the streaming war intensifies, US media giant ViacomCBS is also gearing up for a tough race, building one of the largest and diversified content slates.

“We have what it takes to succeed in streaming. We spend about $15 billion a year on content, which makes us one of the largest producers of content on the planet. And all of that increasingly feeds our streaming ecosystem,” said ViacomCBS president and CEO, Bob Bakish at the first inaugural TMT Conference held virtually on Monday.

The short and stocky Bakish said that ViacomCBS is in a good place in the streaming space. Free advertising-supported streaming television (FAST) service Pluto is on course to cross a billion dollars in revenue in 2021, despite all the scoffing from critics, who said he was putting $340 million into a lousy investment two years ago, as it had just 12 million monthly actives and $70 million in revenues then. Today, it has more than 50 million monthly actives and is present in more than 25 markets in the US, and is expected to roll out in more cities and states soon, and internationally thereafter.

Of course, its Paramount+ (earlier called CBS All Access) premium service added six million new streaming subscribers in the first quarter of 2021, reaching a total of 36 million global streaming subscribers. While Pluto and Paramount+ delivered streaming revenue growth of 65 per cent year-over-year, the company expects the income uptick to accelerate in the second quarter, based on its differentiated strategy and tremendous momentum.

Bakish is also quite sanguine that the recently launched Paramount+ Essential plan priced at $4.99 (which will show ads to viewers) will help expand its user base as well as give a leg up to advertising revenues going forward. Said he: “..given what we know about elasticity, we feel this lower price point of $4.99 will broaden the addressable market for Paramount+. …it also offers us another opportunity to serve the rapidly growing premium digital ad market… as we look at this product and the dynamics of the ad market, we actually believe analytically that the $4.99 version can generate higher average revenue per user (ARPU) over time than our $9.99 product. So we think that’s tremendously compelling because it – again, it broadens the consumer base and it drives higher ARPU.”

Streaming is still an early stage media business in general and certainly for ViacomCBS and the company’s strategy is to focus on usage, then revenue. “Right now, we’re building the base”, he said. “The ad growth has increased in the last three quarters and expect another quarter of strong double-digit ad growth in Q2 largely because the demand continues to improve and scatter pricing is really at all-time highs.”

A proven hit-maker when it comes to content across formats and genres, ViacomCBS has been investing heavily in content. Its content production capability is driving the rapidly growing slate of exclusive originals on Paramount+.

“We have talked about these numbers even before our capital raise, 36 original series this year, going over 50 next year, a large volume of movies, particularly in ‘22. And its content at that level of quality and scale is ultimately what drives success in streaming. It is an extremely scarce and valuable asset and it is the core of what ViacomCBS is,” averred Bakish.

ViacomCBS is driving significant subscribers and increasing engagement, but it is also seeing churn come down and the average age comes down materially, according to Bakish. All of those metrics have improved since our Paramount+ launch, he added.

Sports continue to be an important part of its strategy, which includes the NFL, the SEC on the football side, golf, UEFA, women’s soccer on the European football side. Most recently, it added some incremental international soccer rights. “We just had Paramount+ the UEFA 2021 Champions League Final. It was the most streamed non-NFL sporting event ever for us,” he added.

Amid the increasing transformation from the linear to the digital side, Bakish said, all of its cable brands have exclusive originals in linear, including events, which supports the value proposition. “We closed multiple deals, including with Comcast, with Verizon, with YouTube, with Hulu. None of these are walk-in-the-park companies,” he added.

With an incredible slate coming, and many more originals and films ramp up, the entertainment giant is expecting streaming revenue growth to accelerate in Q2 relative to what was posted in Q1 to compete with the likes of Netflix and Disney+ in the streaming arena. A part of its ambitious plan is to make Paramount+ available in 45 markets by the end of 2022 and have up to 75 million streaming subscribers globally by 2024. 

“And in addition to the general market, we are seeing the benefit of truly going to market as a combined company. And that creates a real advantage for us because we have the scale and reach both in high-quality, brand-safe, digital environments and in the linear side. And in addition to that, we have these must-have offerings, the NFL, Primetime, Late Night, tentpoles, diverse audiences. So the ad market is looking very good to us. Our company is connecting with it. Our IQ product is a big part of our strategy, and that combines all our high-quality digital. We’re seeing tremendous growth there,” said the ViacomCBS president.

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