CBS Chief George Cheeks Talks Paramount Global Uncertainty, Traction for ‘Tracker’ and the Future of Broadcast TV

'At the end of the day, what we are is a hit-making content machine,' the CEO tells Variety's FYC Fest Paramount Global has a strong future ahead of it and so does broadcast television, despite the uncertainty that has enveloped Hollywood in general and Paramount in particular

Published Time: 07.06.2024 - 02:31:29 Modified Time: 07.06.2024 - 02:31:29

'At the end of the day, what we are is a hit-making content machine,' the CEO tells Variety's FYC Fest

Paramount Global has a strong future ahead of it and so does broadcast television, despite the uncertainty that has enveloped Hollywood in general and Paramount in particular. That was the message sent Thursday by CBS chief George Cheeks, who last month was also tapped as one of three CEOs to steer Paramount Global through a period that is sure to be challenging no matter what happens with the company.

Cheeks acknowledged the merger and sale activity that has swirled around Paramount Global for nearly nine months during his keynote address at Variety‘s FYC Fest daylong conference held at West Hollywood’s 1 Hotel. But he also emphazied that the tri-part Office of the CEO, consisting of Paramount Pictures chief Brian Robbins and cable head Chris McCarthy, that was established after the ouster of Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish has a long-term plan for running the company if the much-discussed transaction with David Ellison’s Skydance Media does not come to fruition.

Related Stories

When asked if he thinks Paramount Global has a strong future ahead of it if no deal comes to pass, Cheeks didn’t hesitate: “One hundred precent.”

“At the end of the day, what we are is a hit-making content machine on the film side and on the television side, across multiple genres, from kids to unscripted to scripted — everything,” Cheeks said during the interview with Cynthia Littleton, Variety‘s Co-Editor in Chief. “I really, really do believe that we are very well positioned to meet the moment.”

RELATED CONTENT: Paramount Global, Skydance Agree on New M&A Deal Terms But Shari Redstone Hasn’t Approved Pact Yet

Cheeks noted that the CEO trio earlier in the week laid out a long-term plan for Paramount Global to go it alone in the coming years at the company’s June 4 shareholders meeting. That plan includes about $500 million in cost cuts, among other provisions.

“There’s a lot of work we need to do,” he said. “We need to really level set and streamline the organization, we do need to transform our streaming strategy, we need to make sure that our asset mix is laser-focused on what we are and what we need to be. So I’m not I’m not diminishing the amount of work that needs to be done. But I do believe that we’re on the right path.”

Cheeks offered a glimpse of how the CEO triumvirate is working together and how they are setting boundaries for the sake of the streamlining that they see is necessary to keep the company competitive at a tumultuous time. For one, Cheeks said that he and McCarthy are not involved in greenlight decisions for Paramount Pictures — that authority rests with Robbins. And the same is true for Cheeks, who oversees all of CBS and aspects of the Paramount+ streamer.

“We are maintaining that divisional clarity,” he said. “These are the three main content divisions. Being a content company, we want to make sure that our teams feel stable and secure and continue to do the great work they’ve been doing.”

Even before they were drawn together to fill the void after Bakish’s departure, the three executives had a strong working relationship.

“Everyone’s saying it’s unprecedented, it’s unorthodox — three co-CEOs. I’m not going to argue that it’s not unprecedented but I will say that this is an unprecedented and unorthodox time in the industry and in our company,” he said. “What’s important to remember is that what we need to do more than anything is move with speed.”

Cheeks stressed that he is not “naive” about the challenges of a three-person leadership team but he reiterated that “I really do believe this is the optimal structure to meet this moment now.” It’s particularly important for internal morale. “I think it does give a sense of relief to know that, yes, there’s tumult and yes, we don’t know what’s happening, but at least we have leaders who know what we do and respect us and have a vision for the future.”

That vision includes a redoubling of efforts to focus on “core competency” operations and shoring up the company’s capital structure. “It really is deigned to strengthen our balance sheet and also to redefine the company to really focus on what its core competency is. We know how to build big mass hits. We talked a lot in the shareholders meeting about our billion-dollar franchise strategy. We talked about our desire to continue to do that across multiple genres, whether it’s extending or building new ones, and in really sort of focusing on the alignment of Chri -

s, Brian and I to really handle that and basically to set the company up for wherever this tumultuous media environment leads.”

Cheeks came to CBS in early 2020, just before the pandemic upended everything. He had been a top content executive at NBCUniversal and had been a business affairs executive with Viacom earlier in his career. With his range of experience, Cheeks came in to CBS with confidence in the future of broadcast TV despite the naysayers who see it as becoming outmoded as viewers embrace streaming platforms.

“My very strong hypothesis was that the incremental combination of broadcast linear and streaming is one of the best ways possible to drive unduplicated reach. So that was the premise. And with that premise in mind, we look at it from each set of verticals on the entertainment side, and what that really meant was that CBS shows now need to not only appeal to the core CBS audience, which is an older audience,” he said. “Particularly as as our ad products change, and as we look at the potential for linear TV to become a full funnel marketing platform, aligning it with the digital and the ad products of digital. So the combination of that and then finding shows that also find an audience in streaming, which tends to be 20-plus years younger. That’s how you build hybrid broadcast and streaming audiences.”

Cheeks pointed to the success of “Tracker,” the hit procedural drama that CBS launched in February after the Super Bowl. That show’s launch was delayed by the writers and actors strikes that hit Hollywood last year. It turned out to be a silver lining because it gave the network more time to fine tune the show that stars Justin Hartley. It’s performed well for CBS on the linear network as well as Paramount+.

“It validated our strategy. Getting out of the traditional broadcast development cycle, and developing things off cycle and developing things until they’re ready to launch — this show is living proof of that,” Cheeks said. “CBS marketing head Mike Benson and his incredible marketing team really treated ‘Tracker’ like a movie release. We started teaser trailers a year out before we launched the show. And we really sort of built momentum and built a rich awareness like they do in feature world.”

“Tracker” is also unusual because it is produced for CBS by Disney’s 20th Television rather than being an in-house CBS production. It’s a sign that CBS programmers are hunting for the best shows they can find rather than focusing on deal terms. Cheeks argued that “Tracker” was a fit with the CBS audience in the same way that “This Is Us” (also produced by 20th TV) was destined to be an NBC drama.

“We strongly believe in the broadcast model,” he said. “We have a couple of shows that are licensed and we have many shows that we own. It nevertheless proves out the theory that you can still build huge cross-platform hits when you go the right place.”

The conversation wound down with a discussion of two important pillars of CBS’ lineup: the NFL and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

On the NFL, Cheeks rejected the notion that the cost of NFL rights have soared so much under the new deal inked in 2022 that football has essentially become a loss leader for CBS.

“It is critical to the ongoing, enduring value of broadcast and streaming,” he said. “When you look at the ad market and you see all the challenges there, sports bucks all those trends.”

On the future of “The Late Show” and whether Colbert will maintain his perch at 11:37 p.m. at the network, Cheeks was effusive.

“He remains number one,” Cheeks said. “We’re now in an election year, so his voice is more relevant than ever during a very intense election year.” He also noted that Colbert is in business with CBS and Paramount Global on a number of projects including “After Midnight,” the show hosted by Taylor Tomlinson that follows “Late Show” at 12:35 a.m.

“She’s an absolute star,” Cheeks said of Tomlinson. “What’s so fun about 12:30 is that it’s just rife with experimentation. The show keeps evolving. You’re trying new things and it’s just a great sort of creative engine. And I just love that Stephen’s involved in that day part in addition to running ‘The Late Show.’ “

More from Variety

Most Popular

Must Read

Sign Up for Variety Newsletters

A Variety and iHeartRadio Podcast

More From Our Brands

ad To help keep your account secure, please log-in again. You are no longer onsite at your organization. Please log in. For assistance, contact your corporate administrator.