Viacom spent $340 million to acquire the ad-supported streaming video platform Pluto TV at the beginning of this year. At the time, CEO Bob Bakish called the transaction an “important step forward in Viacom’s evolution.” At the heart of that evolution, which Bakish has been working on since taking the reins at Viacom in late 2016, is IP creation and exploitation. Unveiled in 2018, the new Viacom studios strategy is an aggressive step toward addressing the seemingly unending thirst for content from third-party outlets, both in the U.S. and across the globe. Unlike some of its U.S. compatriots, Viacom is looking to create more partnerships with the broader media ecosystem rather than keep its production prowess just for its own channels.
In the U.S., MTV Studios and Nickelodeon already have a range of projects underway with streaming services, while Paramount Television has shows set across the basic cable, premium and streaming landscapes.
Outside the U.S., David Lynn, president and CEO of Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN), is on a similar path to transform the business. The channels, of course, remain core to VIMN’s operations. VIMN—which delivered record revenues and profitability in fiscal 2018—operates MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and BET, among others, across Europe, AsiaPac, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. It has two key free-TV footholds—in Argentina, with Telefe, and in the U.K., with Channel 5—and is a major player in the teeming Indian market via its Viacom18 joint venture. The linear channels are still key touchpoints as Viacom executes on its mission of creating entertainment experiences that drive conversation and culture. But, as Lynn tells World Screen in this wide-ranging interview, there are many more opportunities for the company to expand.
Viacom International Studios has a raft of new projects in the works while continuing to license scripted series, entertainment formats and kids’ shows from the company’s deep library of owned content. Elephant House Studios, which grew out of Channel 5’s in-house production team, has begun making shows for third-party outlets. At MIPTV, VIMN will be representing content from Awesomeness, the digital studio it acquired last year, for the first time. And Pluto TV, the other recent acquisition, has international ambitions as it eyes AVOD opportunities across the globe.
VIMN is also stepping up its relationships with telecom operators who are expanding into the video business, offering apps, linear channels and premium services. And it is ramping up its activities in live experiences and recreation as it looks for new ways to engage with ever-fickle youth audiences.
WS: Viacom acquired Awesomeness last year. How does that brand fit into the company’s international portfolio?
LYNN: This is going to be one of our key areas of focus at MIPTV this year. VIMN will be representing Awesomeness for the first time at the market. Awesomeness is a great addition to Viacom’s overall TV studios strategy, which aims to grow our revenues from creating new IP for third parties as well as licensing our deep library of content. As we all know, there’s a global arms race going on between broadcasters, MVPDs and streaming services, with everybody competing to secure the best original IP and library content. We’re seeing that some of our competitors are becoming increasingly vertical and they’re holding back content for their own services. That represents a good opportunity for Viacom, and we’re looking to take advantage of that growing global demand for premium IP, utilizing both our libraries and our studios. Awesomeness fits into that wider strategy. Initially, we’ve announced that we will be responsible for distributing its content outside the U.S. But we’re also exploring other opportunities to help Awesomeness expand internationally, potentially including remakes of its original content for local markets around the world.
WS: Tell us about the overall Viacom International Studios business. How are you working with both your own outlets and third-party entities?
LYNN: We’ve been expanding rapidly into the TV studios business over the last few years, right across Viacom. In fact, Viacom has set a growth target of $1 billion in revenues from its global TV studio business by 2020. Paramount Pictures has re-established its TV studio over the last few years. It has been growing rapidly and had some great successes—13 Reasons Why on Netflix, Jack Ryan on Amazon and Catch-22, which is coming up on Hulu. More recently, MTV and Nickelodeon have established studios in the U.S.—MTV has announced they’ll make The Real World for Facebook Watch, and Nick is making a number of projects for Netflix, including Pinky Malinky.
We’ve been moving into the TV studios business internationally as well. Last year we launched Viacom International Studios, first in our Americas business. When we bought Telefe a few years ago, it had really strong production capabilities making fantastic content for its own schedule. We’ve pivoted and started to use those great development and production capabilities to produce content for third parties as well across the continent. We took the Telefe studio and combined it with our existing TV studio in Miami—as well as Porta dos Fundos, a digital comedy producer in Brazil that we acquired a majority stake in—to create VIS Americas. We’re already the third-largest distributor of Latin American content globally. We’re producing in lots of different genres, from scripted to comedy to reality to kids. This year we’ll have 900 hours of new content available for sale. We announced at NATPE a host of different deals with broadcasters and telcos in Latin America: titles like 12 Segundos with Mega (Chile) and Imagen (Mexico) and R with Claro Video (Mexico). These are in addition to numerous other deals, including a number we’ve done with the SVOD players in Latin America, like Borges with Netflix and Homens? with Amazon.
WS: Are you seeing more demand for Spanish-language scripted content today?
LYNN: We’re seeing growing interest across the whole region. That same arms race between broadcasters, MVPDs and streaming services is happening in Latin America. We see an increasing opportunity for the U.S. Hispanic market as well. We’re also taking our Spanish-language scripted content and looking for opportunities to create English-language versions. We’re working closely with Paramount Television to identify scripted projects from their development slate that we believe have international potential, and we’re also developing drama through Paramount Network International in Europe and VIS Americas. We’re combining those scripted development pipelines and taking them to market to seek out co-production partners among MVPDs and broadcasters across Europe and other international markets.
WS: Tell us more about your production activities in Europe, and where Channel 5 fits in with those plans.
LYNN: When we acquired Channel 5, it had a small in-house production team. Over the last few years, we’ve been scaling that up. We’re now at the stage where Elephant House Studios [formerly Channel 5 Productions] will make about 200 hours of content this year. The majority will be for Channel 5; it’s already had some big successes with shows like Cruising with Jane McDonald, which won Channel 5’s first-ever BAFTA. Elephant House Studios is also producing more hours for Viacom’s flagship pay-TV networks in the U.K.—we’ve announced it’s making a version of Cribs for MTV U.K. And we are now starting to produce content for third parties. Our first external commission is for ITV, and we have other deals in the pipeline.
I’m looking for other opportunities to grow our international TV studios business over time. A couple of years ago we took a minority stake in a leading Israeli production company called Ananey Communications, which is producing content not just in Hebrew but also in the English language for the international market. Ananey has enjoyed some real success with shows like Greenhouse Academy for Netflix.
WS: What are your plans for IP creation in Asia?
LYNN: Over the last few years we’ve been scaling up our production of content for our own networks in Asia. We now have original local productions on MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. That in-house production capability gives us a foundation from which to launch a TV studio business. We’ve made some moves in China, where we announced our first major content collaboration, Deer Squad, a kids’ animation with iQiyi. I see opportunities to grow our TV studio business across Asia.
WS: Viacom’s latest acquisition was that of the AVOD platform Pluto TV. What are your international ambitions for that service?
LYNN: There is a lot of excitement around the Pluto acquisition. We’re getting a lot of inbound interest [from distribution partners] in what we’re going to do there. It’s a great product with proven appeal to young digital-first audiences. I see it as another great opportunity to exploit the deep content libraries that we have. We’ve announced that we’re going to be launching a U.S. Hispanic service over the coming months. That will have a lot of synergies with our business in Latin America, so we’re also going to be rolling out the service in that region. Pluto is already in the U.K. and Germany. Pluto TV fits very nicely with our three-tiered distribution strategy—we see the market dividing further into premium, basic and free. We’re obviously already well established in the basic pay-TV tier. We’ve been increasingly launching services in premium, including Paramount+ and Noggin. And Pluto gives us a big addition in the free space. Our strategy is to roll out products and services in each of these tiers as [broadly] as possible in every major international market. Having those three different elements to our distribution strategy means we can adapt to each market.
WS: What factors do you have to take into consideration as you determine which approach you’ll take in any given market?
LYNN: A lot will depend on the strategies of the established players and how we see each market evolving. If you take a market like India, where we already have a very strong AVOD service in place through voot, we’re looking for new growth opportunities in SVOD. We’ll bring new products to market according to the opportunities that exist, always seeking to build out those extra tiers over time.
WS: In an era of skinny bundles, how do the Viacom channels maintain their must-have status?
LYNN: Ultimately, our success will be built on the enduring strength of our brands and our content. We’re lucky to have really premium, distinctive brands, and also brands that are youth-skewing. A lot of the skinny bundle services are looking for that youth skew, which we are great at providing. Take Sky’s NOW TV in the U.K.—we’re the largest third-party provider of channels on that service. We’re focused on maintaining premium brands that consumers want to engage with. By investing in and focusing on six flagship brands [BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. and Paramount], we make sure that when operators are selecting what channels they would like to include in those skinnier bundles, we have very strong offerings that touch different demographics and different genres.
WS: You’ve had a lot of activity with telco partners as they ramp up their video offerings. Are the needs of telco operators different from those of your more traditional pay affiliates?
LYNN: In mobile, different operators are trying to evaluate what is the right and best video strategy to go to market. We have a host of different deals and products and services that we’ve launched around the world, and we’re flexible when it comes to commercial models. At this stage, we have 20 different deals in place with 16 different operators—that covers about 5 million subs across 30 different countries. We have linear channels in some cases. Sometimes our deals cover only one country; sometimes they are pan-regional, like our Telefónica deal in Latin America. We provide streaming apps for all our flagship brands. We’re increasingly bringing our premium VOD services to the mobile space as well. We’ve launched Paramount+ on mobile in the Nordics, and we’re about to launch MTV Play in the U.K. with a leading MNO.
WS: How are you growing the live-experience and recreation sides of Viacom’s global business?
LYNN: I’m focused on accelerating the transformation of our business model as the market continues to evolve. We’ve already talked about making a much bigger play in digital video—new premium services, Pluto in free and bringing new rights to our existing MVPD partners. On top of that, we’re making a big push to diversify our business. Part of that is our TV studios strategy; part of it is about developing and expanding our existing consumer-products business. We’re moving into new areas as well, two of those being live events and recreation.
We’ve been growing the live-events side a lot over the last few years. This year we’ll have 90 different events across the world. The strategy covers all our brands—for example, MTV’s World Stage and the EMAs, Nickelodeon’s KCAs and SlimeFest, and Comedy Central Fest—and we’re bringing new brands to market. We just staged our first VidCon in London. VidCon is an influencer event that we acquired last year, and we’re helping them expand internationally. We just announced six European Bellator MMA events. We had over a million people go to a Viacom event last year.
The second part of our real-world strategy is our recreation business, which we have plans to expand rapidly. We’re going to double the number of recreation touchpoints over the next five years to more than 30 different touchpoints around the world. In particular, we’re growing our theme-parks business—for example, in China, we’ve just signed a licensing deal for a sixth Nickelodeon theme park. All of [them] will start to [open] over the next four or five years. We’ve also moved into the hotel space—we’re opening our second Nickelodeon hotel at the end of 2019 or early 2020 in Mexico.
WS: Against the backdrop of seemingly constant change, what priorities will you be focusing on at VIMN in the 12 to 18 months ahead?
LYNN: Our strategy is all about maintaining strong growth in our core TV business while accelerating the transformation of the business model through innovation and diversification. In terms of our content licensing and distribution strategy, there is a distinction emerging between us and some of our competitors. We see our competitors becoming more vertical and keeping more content for themselves. We’re very focused on forging deeper content relationships with our existing partners, helping them strengthen their content offer and bring new services to market.