Signaling a high-level management makeover, ViacomCBS is poised to name George Cheeks, a rising star at NBCUniversal, as the top executive at CBS, according to three people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.
A surprise choice, Cheeks is in advanced negotiations with ViacomCBS to replace CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello, who has been running the broadcasting company since former CEO Leslie Moonves stepped down in September 2018 amid a growing sexual harassment scandal.
News that Cheeks, 55, was in line to replace Ianniello comes one month after Viacom merged with CBS. It is not clear when Cheeks will join CBS because he still is under contract with NBC.
The pending move stunned the New York broadcasting institution, which has groomed its leaders from within its ranks for a quarter century. Instead, Cheeks is a Harvard-trained lawyer who has spent most of his career behind the scenes. Since October, he has been helping manage NBCUniversal’s television studio operations.
Cheeks would manage CBS properties at a time of much upheaval at the company and in the television industry. In the coming days, ViacomCBS is expected to begin several rounds of layoffs, potentially cutting hundreds of jobs in Los Angeles and New York in order to extract $500 million in cost savings — a promise made to Wall Street. Six senior ad executives left the company as part of a restructuring announced Wednesday.
Ianniello, who has spent more than 22 years at CBS, managed the publicly traded company through a turbulent period.
When Viacom merged with CBS in December, Ianniello was named CEO of the CBS properties, including the CBS network and the CBS television station group. His agreement, reached in November, provided severance totaling nearly $100 million.
Only last fall, ViacomCBS indicated that Ianniello would be a key player in the integration of the two companies. But he enjoyed a close association with Moonves at a time when the former CEO was battling CBS’ controlling shareholder, Shari Redstone. That history probably hurt Ianniello’s long-term prospects at the company.
ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, who runs the combined entity, is quickly forming his own team, much like he did soon after he became chief executive of Viacom in late 2016.
Redstone has long made it clear that Bakish was her favorite and that he should have the freedom to pick his own management team.
On Tuesday, Cheeks resigned from his position as vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios, where he was second in command to veteran programmer Bonnie Hammer. He also was in charge of NBC Entertainment’s late-night schedule, including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” and “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” Before taking a leadership role at the TV studio, Cheeks was co-chairman of NBC Entertainment from September 2018 to October 2019.
He will have his work cut out for him. The company’s primary assets are decades-old television properties, including the CBS network, premium channel Showtime, cable outlets Pop and the Smithsonian Channel and book publishing house Simon & Schuster. Viacom’s assets include Paramount Pictures — a Hollywood movie studio that has struggled to compete against better resourced rivals, such as Walt Disney Co. — and cable channels MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, BET, TV Land and Nickelodeon.
Network ratings have plummeted as consumers switch to advertising-free streaming services. The audience for cable television channels has declined 15% in the last decade.
The CBS broadcast network must remain profitable so it can afford big-ticket properties, such as NFL football. CBS and other legacy networks are grappling with rising programming costs as they struggle to remain a destination for top show producers, several of whom have been wooed to streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime Video with lucrative production deals.
Analyst Michael Nathanson of the MoffettNathanson research firm described the newly minted ViacomCBS as “stuck in no man’s land.”
“They are saddled with an overabundance of structurally pressured assets like Showtime and legacy Viacom’s cable networks [that are] facing an incredibly more competitive market for premium scripted content,” Nathanson wrote in a Wednesday research note.
In addition, CBS has long faced criticism for hewing to a worn formula of casting white men in starring roles in its prime-time network shows. Changing CBS’ culture and developing edgier shows that resonate with CBS’ loyal audiences also will be a priority for Cheeks.
Cheeks cut his teeth at Viacom. He spent more than a decade with the New York company before joining NBC in 2012. He had been an executive vice president for business affairs and general counsel of the Viacom Music and Entertainment Groups in New York. He was also head of standards and practices at Viacom Media Networks.
He began his career as an entertainment associate at the law firm Loeb & Loeb from 1992 to 1994. He went on to work in business and legal affairs for Castle Rock Entertainment from 1995 to 1997 before joining the entertainment law firm Hansen, Jacobson, Teller in Beverly Hills. He joined Viacom in 1998.
Cheeks did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that he was joining ViacomCBS.
The company’s shares slipped 64 cents, or 1.6%, to $39.69 on Wednesday.