Q&A: He was tied to the old regime at CBS. Can Joe Ianniello pave its future under Viacom?

Joe Ianniello, the new chairman and chief executive of CBS, on New York Street at the CBS lot in Studio City.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

When former CBS Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves was fired over sexual harassment allegations a year ago, many media analysts believed the company had lost an indispensable impresario who kept it vital in a turbulent TV industry.

His departure cleared the way for the company’s controlling shareholder Shari Redstone to reunite CBS with Viacom — home of MTV, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures — in a deal that was announced Aug. 13.

It also meant an uncertain future for Joseph Ianniello, a loyal Moonves lieutenant who was being groomed to take over. Ianniello, 51, did not get the top job at ViacomCBS, which went to Viacom Chief Executive Bob Bakish (giving Ianniello a contractually obligated $70 million payout). But he is staying on as chairman and chief executive officer of CBS and will continue to run its operations, thanks to his ability to calm the waters amid the scandals and corporate uncertainty that plagued the rank and file in recent years.


His key moves included naming well-liked veteran producer Susan Zirinsky to run CBS News and tapping respected Showtime Networks head David Nevins as chief creative officer. Ianniello guided the company’s efforts to become less dependent on advertising by getting fees from cable and satellite providers for carrying its TV signals and led its entry into the digital streaming business with CBS All Access. The strategy has helped the company set records for revenue and earnings per share this year, though steep challenges remain. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native talked about his vision for what’s ahead.

Viacom and CBS merged in 2000 and then split up in 2006. This is kind of like the divorced mom and dad getting back together again. What do you say to the kids?

The assets are very complementary. It’s the largest reach of TV viewership in the U.S. bar none and the largest television library in the world. When you have those vast resources come together it’s incumbent on us to make sure we maximize [our] value. So when you look at that, when you look at what AT&T does with Time Warner, Disney buying Fox ... we had to figure out how to make this work. I think the industrial logic of the deal makes total sense.

Why is your commitment to ViacomCBS only 15 months? Doesn’t it create the perception that you may just be there for the transition?

This is a new role, certainly for me. My previous two deals were shorter than this. It takes us to 2021. We have to make sure it’s all working. My focus is singularly on the operations of the business. I hope to end my career here at CBS. I’ve been here 22 years and I’ve signed many contracts along the way and this is just another. I’ve never looked at the length. For me it’s plenty of time to reevaluate that it’s working for the long-term success of the company. I’m satisfied with that. The company is satisfied with that. I hope we look at it in 15 months and say everything is working and we’re renegotiating a new deal.

You’re getting bigger. But what do you say to Wall Street analysts who believe the combination of Viacom and CBS still isn’t big enough to compete with other media conglomerates?


What I say to them is when we negotiate, whether its for advertising or distribution fees, we don’t feel small. CBS and Viacom together generate 22% of television viewership. We’re not paid 22% of the advertising dollars nor the affiliate fees that are paid [by cable and satellite companies]. That gives us a crisp negotiating point as we go in and talk to those partners. Until we’re at that one-to-one ratio, I feel there is tremendous upside to what we bring to the table because our audience is doing our bidding. Those are our fans who want our content and we should get paid appropriately for what we deliver.

Companies such as Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal plan to use their program and movie libraries to build up their new streaming services. But CBS has chosen to license shows to competing streaming platforms rather than offering them exclusively on CBS All Access. Is that going to change now that you have a larger library to draw on?

Not in the foreseeable future. Maybe down the road we’ll revisit that. We don’t mind selling those shows to third parties and taking that money and reinvesting it back into more content for us. Sometimes people come for the originals on CBS All Access and stay for the library. So we have to make sure that the offering is complete. If we can make money while we’re still driving the number of subscribers, we’re going to continue to do that.

I understand the tension between the two. But what I would say is we kind of have the best of both worlds where we’re able to redeploy licensing dollars into more content. We want to put enough content in there to make sure we’re driving subs. With “Star Trek” internationally we licensed the first series to Netflix and the second one to Amazon. CBS All Access will be the only place to get all of [the “Star Trek” series], so it does differentiate us among its competitors.

Disney and NBCUniversal have been very aggressive in using all of their platforms to boost a new TV show or film. Is there going to be a lot of promotion across the divisions of ViacomCBS?

We’re going to absolutely do that. Bob is the CEO and he’ll look to make sure that makes sense for the total company. We can talk to the cable networks audience with All Access and with Showtime and vice versa. Having Nickelodeon kids programming blocks on CBS on weekends is another idea. We can think about promoting the Grammys on MTV and promoting the VMAs on the Grammys.

You were a second-in-command to a high-profile chief executive who was ousted in a scandal and you survived. What lesson can you impart in dealing with such a crisis?

I will tell you the approach I took was to assume that I wasn’t at this company and I didn’t think I knew all the answers. I went around to speak to the people here and listen. Not to impose my will on them, but listen to their concerns, listen to what was going right, what they were proud of and what their ambitions were. Some of the things I heard surprised me. If you asked me what I thought prior to a listening tour, I would have gotten it wrong. ... The most important thing is you have to listen and you have to be decisive in what moves you make. In the middle of all of this what I would say is, forget about what you think you know. Go around, meet the people and listen. Take a deep breath and go with your gut. That’s really what I did that strengthened my relationships to the employees here.


What other moves do you think made a difference to Viacom when its executives were deciding on whether to keep you?

I think the moves with Susan and David [helped]. Obviously the board met with a lot of senior management. There were investigators. There were a whole lot of folks asking what’s going on. I think they recognized my leadership and what I’ve done.

Making Susan Zirinsky the president of CBS News and her putting Norah O’Donnell in the anchor chair at “CBS Evening News” are certainly the most visible moves so far under your tenure. How is that working out so far?

Susan Zirinsky was 100% the right choice. I’m convinced that she is a star and a leader in that organization. Obviously she’s putting her stamp on the organization. You would never launch new shows in the middle of the summer and evaluate them from a ratings standpoint. I’m proud of the shows we put on. I think we have to see how it plays out but the early signs are that she’s making all the right moves.

Does the merger with Viacom offer any opportunities to expand the reach of CBS News?

U.S. news really travels well. Whether it’s CBSN (CBS News’ 24-hour digital channel) going internationally on a Pluto TV platform (Viacom’s ad supported streaming service) or with some Viacom international channels. News-gathering as a business has tremendous opportunity around the world. Would we have a cable news channel? Obviously we’ll consider all of those things.


What’s your favorite TV show right now?

Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice.” It was a little inside baseball but I thought it was really well done. I was captivated. What intrigues me from CBS is a new show called “Evil.” (The new fall drama from “The Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King about a skeptical psychologist and a priest-in-training who team to investigate paranormal crimes.) I’m interested to see how America reacts to it. For me, it has a lot of potential.