More than perhaps any other company, 2019 was a game-changing year for ViacomCBS (NASDAQ: VIAC). While it's well known that Viacom and CBS finally consummated their merger in December, 13 years after they had initially split apart in 2006, the combined companies also made several other big moves in 2019.
Exiting the year, the combined company has a new CEO at the helm, along with two significant additional acquisitions made at both the beginning and end of the year -- one for distribution, and one for content. Here's a rundown of the all the big events that happened for CBS and Viacom in 2019 -- and what's in store for 2020.
Jan. 22: Viacom acquires PlutoTV
The first big move came in January, when Viacom made an acquisition that launched it headlong into the ad-supported, free streaming TV space with the $340 million acquisition of PlutoTV. At the time, PlutoTV offered over 100 ad-supported channels and a slew of on-demand movies. Since the beginning of the year, Viacom has continued to add channels and content, including 43 in the most recent quarter alone, and has brought on 22 Spanish or Portuguese channels in total.
The increased content from Viacom has spurred a 70% increase in subscribers, just through the first nine months of 2019, to over 20 million. With an influx of new streaming services hitting the market in late 2019 and early 2020, ViacomCBS appears to have a solid position with the leading free streaming service -- though more competition will be dropping next year when NBCUniversal drops Peacock, which is supposed to have a free ad-supported tier. And The Wall Street Journal just reported that NBCUniversal parent Comcast (CMCSA 1.53%) is in advanced talks to acquire another free streaming service, Xumo, to add to its arsenal. Xumo is smaller than PlutoTV, however. According to an April 2019 report, Xumo had only 5.5 million monthly active users, while Pluto had 15 million at that time.
Aug. 8: Viacom returns to ad growth
One factor that may have gone underappreciated for Viacom was the big milestone it hit on its fiscal third-quarter earnings report. That was when the company returned to quarterly ad growth for the first time in five years. This had seemed improbable to many, with the rise of cord-cutting and a fragmenting viewership for cable TV audiences.
However, under CEO Bob Bakish's leadership, the combination of Viacom's targeted advertising technology, increased inventory from PlutoTV, and solid content across Viacom's niche-oriented channels helped turn the TV ad segment around. While streaming competition still looms large heading into 2020, the return to ad revenue growth means Viacom shouldn't be counted out and that a long-term decline isn't inevitable. In addition, political ad spending going into the 2020 election should help all ad-supported networks next year, which means ad revenue should continue to grow at ViacomCBS through 2020.
Aug. 13: Viacom and CBS agree to merge
Of course, the biggest event of 2019 was the merger between Viacom and CBS, which was announced in mid-August and closed in early December. Following the merger, Viacom shareholders received 39% of the company, with CBS shareholders receiving the remaining 61%.
However, Bakish would become the head of the combined companies, as controlling owner Shari Redstone had been impressed with his efforts to turn around Viacom since assuming the helm in late 2016. That said, CBS CEO Joe Ianiello stayed on as the head of the CBS properties. Don't cry too many tears for Ianiello, though, as he was given a $100 million retention payment to stay on in the junior role.
While shareholders may have some qualms with that sky-high retention payment for Ianiello, management projects that it can recoup those costs five times over, with a projected $500 million in synergies alone. These cost savings should further boost ViacomCBS profits in 2020.
The combined company may now have the heft to take on the biggest media conglomerates. CBS assets include CBS, Showtime, a 50% ownership in the CW network, CBS television studios, and Simon & Schuster publishing. They'll be combined with Viacom's niche cable assets, including Comedy Central, MTV, VH1, BET, Nickelodeon, Logo, CMT, The Paramount Network, and Paramount Pictures. In addition, Viacom has developed its own advertising technology under its Advanced Marketing Solutions group, which targets TV audiences more precisely than traditional Nielsen (NLSN) ratings.
Overall, the combined company will have a huge content library, along with capacity for $13 billion of content spending per year -- enough to put it on even footing with the biggest streaming companies. ViacomCBS also currently commands the highest proportion of the U.S. TV audience, at 22%.
Dec. 20: A 49% strategic investment in Miramax
Finally, on Dec. 20, ViacomCBS agreed to acquire 49% of Miramax for $375 million. ViacomCBS is paying only $150 million up front, with commitments to make $45 million in annual content investments in content for the next five years at the studio.
Miramax is an independent studio started in 1979, with 700 titles in its vast library. These include several iconic Oscar winners and top films, especially from the 1990s, including Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and many more. Under the terms of the deal, Paramount Studios will have exclusive distribution rights for Miramax's film content and will most importantly gain first-look rights to develop, produce, finance, and distribute new projects based on Miramax intellectual property.
ViacomCBS may also look to other partnership opportunities, with the remaining majority owner, BeIN Group, based in Doha, Qatar, which owns cable channels across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.
With the merger of Viacom and CBS behind the two companies, along with the acquisition of PlutoTV and strategic investment in Miramax, ViacomCBS has bulked up considerably as it aims to compete in a new world of streaming mega-conglomerates. Whether it has enough juice to take on the other streaming giants remains to be seen, but no one can say ViacomCBS is standing still anymore. Still trading at an very cheap valuation, even after a recent rise, ViacomCBS stock has seen its prospects brightened considerably heading into 2020.