Home Money Paramount’s shocking ouster of CEO Bob Bakish is the latest twist in an epic family saga of weak succession planning and poor corporate governance

Paramount’s shocking ouster of CEO Bob Bakish is the latest twist in an epic family saga of weak succession planning and poor corporate governance

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Paramount’s shocking ouster of CEO Bob Bakish is the latest twist in an epic family saga of weak succession planning and poor corporate governance

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Bob Bakish is officially out as CEO of entertainment powerhouse Paramount, after biting the hand that fed him. Bakish alienated Shari Redstone, chair of Paramount and CEO of National Amusements, which controls 77% of Paramount’s voting stock. 

The legacy studio behind blockbusters Top Gun and Mission: Impossible and classics including The Godfather and former cable standbys Comedy Central, MTV as well as CBS itself ousted Bakish in the middle of a destiny-determining takeover battle. There is no individual CEO waiting in the wings to replace him at the top of the $8 billion company. Instead the CEO role will be helmed by three Paramount division heads operating as co-CEOs. The trio presumably will be among the lead strategic negotiators for the company while it navigates a messy takeover battle with billions at stake and multiple suitors lined up to buy it.  

Bakish lost Redstone’s loyalty in a way that echoes the treatment she endured at the hands of her father, the late billionaire media mogul Sumner Redstone. The elder Redstone was known to belittle her in meetings in front of executives, badmouth her in the press, and undercut her chances at succeeding him in the CEO role. The Wall Street Journal reported Bakish went behind Redstone’s back in floating a potential streaming partnership with Comcast earlier this year, which Redstone said was a bad deal for the company and could complicate a potential sale. Redstone also complained after Bakish balked at multiple offers for the company’s Showtime division, one of which reportedly approached $6 billion. Bakish slashed dividends by almost 80% last year, cutting off a key source of revenue for Redstone (Paramount Global’s largest voting shareholder.) 

Meanwhile, Paramount is mired in one of the most dramatic corporate takeover battles in recent memory: dueling offers from a group led by Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s son David’s Skydance Media, and a $26 billion cash joint bid from Sony and private equity firm Apollo. The differing structures of the two deals pitted Redstone’s and Bakish’s interests against each other. Skydance’s proposal would pay Redstone a hefty premium for her voting shares, allowing it to take control of the business without having to offer non-voting shareholders anything except equity in the business—the entire deal would be for less than $10 billion. Apollo’s proposal would offer every shareholder a smaller premium, more popular with Bakish and with Paramount’s broader investor base—but it would result in a much smaller windfall for Redstone, who also controls enough of a voting stake in the company that she could potentially block it.

Bakish resigned yesterday, right before Paramount hosted an unusually short earnings call, spending only nine minutes with analysts and refusing to take any questions before playing the Mission: Impossible theme song. Bakish is slated to cash in on a severance package worth over $50 million.

Fallout

Chaos at the top for Paramount goes back well beyond the takeover battle of recent months. Its stock has lost roughly 50% of its value over the past 12 months, but it’s been a turbulent investment since even before Bakish’s 2016 appointment as CEO. Under the Redstone family, its majority owners, Paramount has been plagued by scandal and corporate mismanagement for decades, and Bakish’s resignation is just the latest twist.

Bakish has spent his entire career in the media industry, joining Paramount in 1997 and working his way up the ranks. In 2007, he was named CEO of Viacom, the Redstone holding company that once included Paramount Studios, and he oversaw the company through its merger with CBS in 2019, after which he was named Paramount CEO.

More importantly, Bakish rose at Paramount with the support and loyalty of Shari Redstone, who had a front-row seat as Sumner Redstone ruled the collection of media properties until well into his 90s. As Sumner Redstone aged and his relationship with his daughter soured, Bakish’s role supporting her would eventually prove pivotal. His departure with Paramount’s stock floundering and the company on the brink of a takeover is therefore just the latest twist in a long-running saga, seemingly ripped straight from HBO’s “Succession,” which was allegedly inspired at least in part by the Redstone family.

A legacy studio’s tangled web

Paramount was founded in 1912, making it the longest-operating studio in Hollywood. In 1994, it was bought for just over $10 billion by Sumner Redstone, a former drive-in-movie-theater operator who built an empire buying up major stakes in entertainment companies including Viacom, MGM, and Time, Inc. Almost six years later, Redstone paid close to $40 billion for CBS, solidifying a bona fide media empire, named National Amusements after his initial drive-in fortune.

Simply put, Redstone’s various properties dominated the media landscape of the 1990s and early 2000s. Although housed in separate publicly traded companies, his Viacom properties included several of cable television’s crown jewels, while CBS dethroned NBC in 2006 to become America’s most-watched network, a title it still holds today. As Sumner Redstone aged, though, things began to unravel.

The elder Redstone, who turned 90 in 2013, was a mercurial leader known for his tense relationship with his family (particularly his daughter, Shari, who has since taken over control of his business) and a long string of relationships with younger women well into his later years that drew questions about who controlled his personal life, according to New York Times reporters Rachel Abrams and James B. Stewart’s 2023 account of Redstone and his business, “Unscripted.” 

Sumner’s relationships were expensive. Abrams and Stewart report that Sumner paid over $7 million in total to Terry Holbrook, a former model and cheerleader who he dated in 2001. A source familiar with Sumner’s trust said that he amended it more than 40 times to include women he was seeing, and that many women received millions of dollars apiece. Towards the end of his life, Sumner was constantly accompanied by Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer, two women both more than 40 years his junior who controlled who could access him. That was a key factor in the deepening rift between Sumner and Shari, who weren’t on speaking terms for a number of years, according to Abrams and Stewart.

Redstone’s mental state deteriorated as he entered his late nineties, coming to a head in a 2016 case where an independent medical advisor concluded that Redstone was incapacitated and needed a legal representative to protect his interests. That same year, Redstone stepped back from running his $40 billion business day-to-day, handing the reins to his daughter, Shari. Sumner Redstone died in 2020.

Shari Redstone ruffled feathers when she backed Bakish as CEO of the joint ViacomCBS venture after the 2019 merger, choosing him over then-CBS CEO Les Moonves, a longtime ally of her father who was considered the likely pick for the role. Severe backlash from Moonves and a lawsuit from CBS caused Redstone, CBS’ majority shareholder, to submit amendments to the company’s bylaws to force Bakish’s appointment through. (Moonves was fired in 2019 after reports emerged that he had sexually harassed numerous women.) The messy ordeal allied Bakish with Shari in leading the new joint company.

Over the following years, though, Paramount under Bakish—with Shari Redstone’s support—failed to meet investors’ expectations. Paramount Global’s stock is down around 80% from its 2019 high, and despite initial enthusiasm about Bakish’s plans for international expansion, his big bet on rolling out Paramount+ in 2020 has consistently lost hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter and struggled to earn the company a foothold in the streaming wars

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