Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central, doesn’t have a content problem, it has a monetization problem.
Ratings don’t matter, because the Internet.
Its most popular series were created, or adapted from other shows, that were launched as far back as the ’80s — but it isn’t out of ideas.
These are among the recent excuses Viacom has made for its fading ratings and aging franchises. A damning cover story from Bloomberg Businessweek entitled “Viacom Is Having A Midlife Crisis” attempts to explain what is happening at the waning cable behemoth. Which is not to say that the corporation isn’t profitable, having last year earned $2.4 billion net income on $13.8 billion of revenue. Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, a former corporate lawyer, personally pocketed $44.3 million of that revenue last year.
Viacom is also feeling rich enough to reward South Park, still Comedy Central’s most popular show among 18-34 year-old males, with three more seasons, which will take it through an astonishing 23rd season by 2019. The South Park renewal arrived amid last weekend’s Comic-Con’s blowout, where Nickelodeon unveiled “Lost In Bikini Bottom,” a new episode of Spongebob Squarepants, a show that debuted in 1999. Meanwhile, MTV is rebooting Celebrity Deathmatch, following revivals of Beavis and Butt-Head and Liquid Television that went nowhere in the post-Adult Swim landscape.
But Viacom is nevertheless digging deep to counter criticism that its major executive layoffs and cratering ratings, down double digits across its most well-known channels over the year, are indicators of serious trouble.
Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman has gone as far as calling Nielsen’s ratings miscalculations that don’t accurately count how today’s fragmented viewership consume their content online and on-demand through their desktops, tablets, phones and streaming devices. Said Dauman during a recent earnings call: “Inadequate measurement undermines innovation, and disproportionately impacts those leading programmers like us who effectively provide the multiplatform experiences that viewers demand.” It would be a more compelling argument if Dauman hadn’t been repeating it for the last five years.
Analyst sentiment also thinks otherwise, pointing out that abandonment of ad-supported TV across demographics does not particularly bode well for Viacom’s future. Satellite and cable bundling is going out of vogue, as streamers like Netflix pick up steam and aggressively grow market-share in former Viacom strongholds like children’s programming.
Viacom’s most popular original shows are sometimes more than a decade old, many greenlit during the reign of Tom Freston, a savvy risk-taking executive who was fired in 2006 largely for his failure to (get ready for this) acquire Myspace.
On the Nickelodeon side, which is most relevant to our interests, the network now consistently lags behind Disney and Cartoon Network in total daytime viewers. The network’s advertising revenues plummeted from $816 million to $660 million between 2010 and 2014.
But there’s nothing to see, move along, said the company. “This is a monetization problem,” Viacom marketing strategist Kern Schireson told Bloomberg. “This is not a content problem.”
It’s a hard pill to swallow. Viacom’s channels used to explode with disruptive, compelling animation. Nick and MTV once blazed trails with The Ren & Stimpy Show, Liquid Television, Rugrats, Daria, and Beavis & Butt-head. Now, Viacom outlets rehash reality programming that redefines redundancy. Comedy Central still has South Park, but it’s going to need something else to plug the massive holes left behind by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
And Nickelodeon? Harvey Beaks and Pig Goat Banana Cricket look solid, but nothing resembling new for the channel. Instead of delving deeper into the bottomless wonders of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko revealed before and during Comic-Con that they’re jumping ship for prose and comics.
“[Viacom is] unrecognizable to me now,” former MTV exec Jason Hirschhorn told Bloomberg. “Devoid of strategy, culture and risk taking. Keep burning the furniture for heat.”
Nielsen’s ratings may not mean what they used to before the Internet, but neither does Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, and the rest of Viacom, which have forfeited their role as arbiters of popular taste.