Business

CBS and Viacom have different streaming strategies. Can they combine to win the streaming wars?

The $30 billion merger of CBS and Viacom means viewers will soon be able to choose from an even larger number of streaming video options. As new entrants into the fray, ViacomCBS will go up against behemoths Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, in addition to upcoming competitors Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal.

But as one of the smaller players on the streaming stage, how will the new company draw in viewers and differentiate itself? And how will it turn a profit?

The first order of business is to expand its direct-to-consumer streaming video channels, said Bob Bakish, the new chief executive officer of ViacomCBS. While programmers collect a set fee from traditional TV networks, streaming services offer a plethora of other monetizable options, such as viewing data and credit card relationships, in addition to advertising.

“A business-to-consumer ecosystem will provide consumers with new forms of access to our premium content… and will accelerate our growth,” said Bakish.

However, developing that ecosystem will necessitate crossing the cultural divide that separates CBS and Viacom.

“They have had different approaches at both companies,” said Tuna Amobi, a senior analyst covering media for the investment research firm CFRA, noting that CBS is subscription based and Viacom uses ad-supported video. “The challenge is to marry all of that together and come up with an offering that will be broad enough to appeal across the board.”

ViacomCBS will have to move fast. The traditional business model is eroding quickly, and advertisers are hungry for digital alternatives: Pay-TV companies lost 5 million subscribers over the past five years, 1.3 million of those in the second quarter of 2019 alone.

Most online video services, including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and the upcoming Disney+, are supported through a paid subscription business. But newcomers such as NBCUniversal’s streaming service are launching ad-supported services that don’t cost anything to the consumer.

ViacomCBS could be somewhat unique in having a foot firmly in both camps. CBS is aiming for 25 million paid subscribers by 2020, with offerings such as CBS All Access — which provides network and NFL content — priced at $9.99 per month, or $5.99 with ads. The company also offers an online version of Showtime, which costs $10.99. Together, they have around 8 million paid subscribers. Meanwhile, Viacom acquired the free, ad-supported streaming service Pluto TV in January, a platform that offers more than 100 channels.

In a call with investors after the merger was announced, Bakish said he envisages a hedge on both sides of the streaming business, where the combined company can sell paid subscriptions at a variety of price points, with free services directing consumers to paid channels. When consumers decide to drop subscriptions, he hopes ViacomCBS can pick up consumers who are prepared to watch ads in return for free channels.

“Now is the perfect time for them to come together,” said Colin Dixon, founder of the analyst group NScreen Media. “Viacom’s purchase of Pluto TV was a very savvy move and they’re really beginning to reap the benefits.” Dixon noted that CBS could potentially launch pop-up channels on Pluto TV from its programming library — perhaps re-runs of popular “60 Minutes” episodes. “They can begin to leverage assets that are sitting on the shelf and make them new again,” he said.

However, CBS and Viacom combined will still be far smaller than its competitors at a time when industry analysts believe scale is important because of the need to match the deep pockets of the tech companies.

And while the new firm will continue to make shows for rivals — Viacom made the controversial teen drama “13 Reasons Why” for Netflix and “Jack Ryan” for Amazon — it also needs to produce enough depth of content for its own streaming services, all the while holding on to major assets such as the rights to NFL broadcasts.

“As is the case with Disney, there is the risk that the new company decides to forgo licensing revenues to build their own direct-to-consumer platforms,” Michael Nathanson, a co-founder of the research company MoffettNathanson, wrote in a note to investors last week.

While much has been made of the battle for rivals to catch up to Netflix’s 151 million subscribers, ViacomCBS was quick to point out after the merger that the combined company would have “global reach of more than 4.3 billion cumulative subscribers in 180 countries.”