In January, Paramount’s board of directors, including Shari Redstone, the company’s chairwoman, met with a group of bankers to learn about the media industry and explore potential deals that could help the company do better with streaming giants to compete like Netflix and Disney.
The bankers from Goldman Sachs and LionTree came with many business ideas, according to four people with knowledge of the meeting. The most logical, the bankers said, is to combine some parts of Paramount — which owns networks like Nickelodeon and MTV, as well as the streaming service Paramount+ — with those of Comcast, the cable giant, which owns NBCUniversal and the streaming service Peacock. The two companies already have a streaming joint venture in Europe.
But in the end, the board of directors, Ms. Redstone and Bob Bakish, the company’s CEO, felt no compellingness to pursue either combination. They would keep bitching while Hollywood bitched.
That is, Paramount- with its collection of streaming services like Pluto TV and Showtime, as well as Paramount+ – would go on alone.
The rapid rise of streaming transformed the media industry in just a few short years, as companies felt the pressure to spend billions on new TV shows and movies to gain enough subscribers to compete with the industry giants. MGM, the famous film studio, sold to Amazon. And Discovery along with WarnerMedia, the film and television giant behind Game of Thrones and Succession.
Not priority. The company hasn’t sought another big deal since it formed out of the merger of Viacom and CBS three years ago. Instead, the company has been trying to build its own profitable streaming business before the cash flow from traditional TV, still its big moneymaker, dries up.
In interviews, both Ms. Redstone and Mr. Bakish said that Paramount, with its global footprint, streaming businesses and film studio behind the new hit film Top Gun: Maverick, would be successful on its own terms.
“In a lot of ways we continue to be the underdogs and that’s fine,” Mr Bakish said. “But I think as time goes on, more and more people will realize that Paramount is powerful.”
Ms. Redstone and Mr. Bakish still have a lot to convince Wall Street. In the years since Ms. Redstone has championed efforts to combine the two halves of her family’s media empire – Viacom and CBS – into Paramount, the value of the combined company has fallen significantly. On the day the merger was announced, in August 2019, Wall Street valued both companies at $29.6 billion. Today, Paramount is worth $22.1 billion, down 25 percent. The stock prices of Paramount’s competitors, including Disney and Netflix, have also fallen over the same period.
Rich Greenfield, co-founder and analyst at LightShed Partners, a research firm, is skeptical that Paramount can survive on its own. Paramount’s streaming business is growing rapidly but still isn’t profitable, Mr. Greenfield said. And much of the audience for Paramount’s signature content — think MTV and Nickelodeon — has shifted to new media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
The Race for Dominance Streaming TV
“I don’t think anyone believes that five years from now this company won’t have either bought different things or become part of something bigger,” said Mr. Greenfield. “It’s time to eat or be eaten.”
In recent weeks, Wall Street has placed an increased focus on the profitability of streaming companies. Netflix said in April it lost streaming subscribers in the first quarter of the year, reversing a decade of growth and sending its stock plummeting. Mr. Bakish said that competitors like Netflix — which he cheekily calls “legacy streamers” — are only now realizing the importance of the revenue strategies Paramount has pursued for years, including advertising.
The box office, another traditional business largely shunned by Netflix, is another example, Mr. Bakish said. Top Gun: Maverick is on track to generate $150 million in box office sales by its opening weekend, but unlike most studio-produced films, it won’t be released on Paramount+ within the typical 45-day window.
Still, some pundits think Paramount’s strategy is solid. Brett Feldman, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said the global market for streaming subscribers is much larger than the audience for pay-TV subscribers. Paramount+ added 6.8 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2022. Mr. Feldman is among the minority of analysts who are “buying” Paramount.
“Not everyone pays for cable, especially outside of the US,” Mr. Feldman said. “Most people have an internet connection or a cell phone to stream videos.”
Paramount received a vote of confidence this month from Berkshire Hathaway, billionaire Warren Buffett’s holding company. Berkshire Hathaway said in a filing that it bought a $2.6 billion stake in Paramount. Berkshire Hathaway did not explain its reasons for investing in Paramount, and the company declined to grant The Times an interview. But the news sent Paramount shares up 15 percent.
Ms Redstone said Berkshire Hathaway’s investment in Paramount surprised her. She received the news hours after it became public.
“I was out for dinner and the person said to me, ‘What do you think of Buffett’s investment?'” Ms. Redstone said. “And I was like, ‘What?'”
The ultimate fate of Paramount will most likely be determined by Ms. Redstone, who emerged victorious from a bitter 2018 legal battle with Les Moonves, then CBS CEO, to retain control of the entertainment fortune her family has owned for decades. Like her father, the shrewd and bellicose lawyer-turned-mogul Sumner Redstone, Ms. Redstone controls Paramount through National Amusements, a holding company that she runs and which owns voting shares in the company.
While Mr. Redstone was known for argumentative and impulsive decisions — he once threatened to cut Paramount’s ties with Tom Cruise after his couch-jumping episode on The Oprah Winfrey Show — Ms. Redstone is a more reserved leader. She underscored the contrast with a joke.
“Like I said to my dad once, I said, ‘Everything I am I owe to you, except for the nice bits—that came from my mom,'” she said, laughing.
Ms. Redstone said she weighs the direction of the Paramount in one-to-one meetings with Mr. Bakish and spends time nurturing business relationships inside and outside the company. She introduced Mr. Bakish to Brian Robbins, who eventually became chairman of Paramount with her support, and helped negotiate a deal with South Korean entertainment company CJ ENM, setting Mr. Bakish up with Miky Lee, vice chairman of the company’s parent company. Association.
Ms. Redstone was an early supporter of Paramount’s decision to compete directly with big players like Disney and Netflix in direct-to-consumer streaming — a strategy that was still up in the air when Viacom and CBS merged in 2019.
After the merger, company executives debated whether to invest in its existing subscription streaming service — then known as CBS All Access — or forego streaming in favor of an “arms dealer” strategy: movies and TV shows to other streaming companies sell , so three people with knowledge of the discussions.
In early 2020, just weeks after the deal closed, Paramount decided to make an initial foray into streaming: The company would put some Viacom content on CBS All Access, effectively expanding the service quickly without spending on original content production make.
A few months later, with the encouragement of Ms. Redstone and Marc Debevoise, the company’s digital head at the time, who co-founded CBS All Access, Paramount decided it would spend money on original movies and TV shows for the service to effectively get into the streaming fray , people said.
That spring, Mr. Bakish called a series of meetings and asked the heads of all of the company’s networking groups to present projects for inclusion on an enterprise-wide subscription streaming service.
In July of this year, the company completed its current course. At a board meeting, company executives summarized the strategy along with several potential names for the yet-to-be-named streaming service: Paramount+, Honeycomb, The Eye, and Pluto+. (The last option was inspired by the company’s popular ad-supported streaming service.) Over the summer, they settled on Paramount+, according to two people familiar with the matter.
As part of the revised streaming strategy, major Paramount films — with the exception of a few hits like Top Gun: Maverick — will be released on Paramount+ within 45 days of their theatrical release. The idea behind this approach is that it gives Paramount a foothold in the nascent streaming era and is firmly entrenched in the traditional money-making methods of old Hollywood.
At the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick last month, just after a splashy promotion on a chartered aircraft carrier in San Diego, Mr. Cruise Sumner paid homage to Redstone. As Ms. Redstone watched, Mr. Cruise noted that the film was due in theaters on May 27, Sumner Redstone’s 99th birthday. (He died in 2020.)
Ms. Redstone said she believes her father generally approves of her approach to Paramount. And she said she thinks Wall Street will eventually come, provided the company keeps its promises.
“I think the market keeps saying, ‘Show me, show me,'” Ms. Redstone said. “And I really think we’re going to keep showing them.”