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Viacom CEO talks changing landscape, global focus in media entertainment industry

Robert Bakish, president and CEO of Viacom, Inc., left, speaks with President Joseph E. Aoun on Friday at Northeastern's CEO Forum. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

There’s no question about it, says Robert Bakish, president and CEO of Viacom, Inc., the media entertainment industry is in a significant state of change. Technology, he says, is a factor, but it’s the consumer who is the key driver of this change.

“All technology is doing is giving consumers more control,” says Bakish. “Consumers have much more influence than they’ve had historically and a much greater ability to connect with other consumers and other constituents.”

On Friday morning, Bakish served as the keynote speaker at Northeastern’s CEO Forum. President Joseph E. Aoun hosts the series, in which CEOs, presidents, and other top business executives from a range of industries share their expertise with audiences of other CEOs and senior executives from the Greater Boston area. “We are delighted you are here,” Aoun said.

With media networks reaching approximately 700 million global subscribers, Viacom’s portfolio features industry-leading brands such as Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and BET, as well as Paramount Pictures studio. Bakish was named chief executive in December, and is focused on investing in and developing new content, expanding distribution, and pursuing strategic growth opportunities in Viacom’s core businesses.

Bakish’s talk ranged from the industry’s landscape, to Viacom, to his thoughts on being a CEO. He joined Viacom in 1997, and prior to becoming president and CEO he led Viacom’s international division. In that role, he more than doubled the division’s revenue and consistently grew its profitability. He also oversaw a massive expansion of the international footprint of Viacom’s branded TV networks.

Aoun asked Bakish about the opportunities and challenges of being a global company, and about how his experience leading Viacom’s international division prepared him to lead the parent company.

Bakish underscored the importance of not only building an interconnected organization, but also understanding the differences between Viacom’s TV and film units and how those differences inform strategic decisions in the company’s various global markets.

Aoun also asked Bakish what attributes he looks for in hiring new employees. Bakish said he seeks people who are smart, who work well with others, and who are driven to make a difference. He also noted how critical it is to build diverse teams—from gender, to culture, to perspective and skill set. “There are very few cases where one person has everything,” he said.

During a Q&A with the audience, Bakish fielded a range of questions, including one on net neutrality. “As a content company that doesn’t own distribution, we at Viacom are significant proponents of net neutrality,” he said.

Another attendee noted that it was a “game-changer for the music industry” when MTV aired its first music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” more than three decades ago. He asked Bakish what new game-changers are on the horizon. He responded by pointing to the buzz around virtual reality, which he says has potential. He noted that 3-D technology’s relevance, for example, has shifted to being more specific than general—with greater success in movie theaters compared to at-home television entertainment.

“There will be things coming down the pike,” he said, “and that keeps it interesting.”

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