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Viacom: OTT plans and Studio ambitions

Viacom president and CEO Bob Bakish

Viacom International Media Networks this week created a new digital studio unit under former MTV and Comedy Central International multiplatform VP Brendan Yam.

Viacom Digital Studios International (VDSI) will focus on creating, distributing and monetising digital content for Viacom’s brands outside of the US.  The move marks an upping in the media company’s investment in short-form, digital content aimed at younger viewers.

The unit will have three production hubs and charged with creating original digital series, topical shows, co-commissions and complementary shorts with a pipeline that includes VIMN and VDS as well as Viacom-owned Argentinian free-to-air broadcaster Telefe and Brazilian comedy brand Porta dos Fundos.

The move was part of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish’s strategy of developing a larger presence in digital content and mobile, which he has previously indicated was set to be a big part of Viacom’s future. Yam will report to Kelly Day, the former AwesomenessTV executive Bakish hired late last year to head up the digital studio initiative.

In January, Viacom acquired influence marketing firm WHOSAY and in February followed by up buying VidCon, a conference focused on YouTube content creators and their fans.

Targeting mobile-centric younger viewers is one aspect of Bakish’s digital ambition for Viacom. He has also spoken previously about launching a direct-to-consumer initiative. Earlier this year, he said that the company was preparing an offering that would draw on over 10,000 hours of library content and would complement what Viacom was doing in the MVPD space, where it distributes its channels via operators.

Speaking at a Morgan Stanley conference in San Francisco, Bakish said that Viacom had taken steps in the US to retain rights to its content so that it could develop its own mobile-focused direct-to-consumer play, and he referred to this again after the company’s Q3 results last week. Speaking to analysts, he said that one element of the company’s “multi-dimensional approach to ensure that we’re making the most out of our assets and capabilities” in OTT would be by “launching a new D2C platform, which we’ve referenced previously”.

Multidimensional is the key word. During the Q3 results, Bakish also spoke at length about his grand plan to tap into what he sees a s US$1 billion global opportunity to deliver digital original content for third-party SVOD providers and other digital distribution platforms, indicating that he believes first-run content is better monetized via other distributors.

He said that Paramount TV’s growth had shown there was a growing appetite for premium episodic video content, but that there was now “a much larger opportunity” that will see Viacom build studio production into a US$1 billion business by 2020.

Building on Paramount TV, which has developed a run of high-profile series including 13 Reasons Why, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Maniac and Catch-22, Viacom has created studio production units at Nickelodeon – which licensed Pinky Malinky to Netflix – and MTV Studios as well as Viacom International Studios, which has produced shows for Netflix, Amazon, Telemundo and Fox, with BET and Comedy Central to follow.

For Bakish, feeding the “insatiable demand for premium episodic video content” is one road to riches. The studios have been tasked with creating new original content for third party customers “leveraging new and existing intellectual property”.

Viacom’s approach therefore appears to be a combination of making more money from library content by developing a direct-to-consumer mobile-centric play, developing short-form mobile-centric digital original content primarily or exclusively for its own outlets, and developing long-form digital original content for third parties.

It is tempting to draw comparisons with Viacom’s semi-estranged half sibling CBS, which has progressed further down the OTT TV road. Speaking after the US broadcaster’s Q1 results in May, CEO Les Moonves – currently under pressure for reasons not related to the company’s performance – spoke about the company’s plans to develop more original content for OTT offerings CBS All Access, which recently launched outside in Canada, and Showtime OTT.

Viacom still has some way to go with its direct-to-consumer strategy to catch up, and its ambitions are likely to be somewhat more modest. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what emerges in the next few months.