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Viacom Follows Disney's Lead, Bets on Digital Short-Form Video

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Attempts by large media conglomerates to shift the balance of their business from linear to digital can work if social media platforms are treated as partners not competitors, says Viacom.

"There is an increasing realization that the days of trying to build your own network and website then acquire and monetize an audience is hard and incredibly expensive," Kelly Day, president of Viacom Digital Studios (VDS) told an audience at IBC. "On the other hand, our ability to scale up by distributing across the social landscape is such an enormous opportunity that it is worth revenue sharing with those platforms. If you do the math, it works out your favor."

The digital studio, which launched last year, is the linchpin of Viacom CEO Bob Bakish's revitalisation plan, as the company moves to expand its core television business onto next-generation platforms.

"This is a huge priority for Bob," said Day. "Viacom is very focused on evolving beyond just being a broadcast company or a linear TV company to being a creative company that produces new IP and develops brands that can be distributed and monetised in lots of different environments." The chief way it is doing this is by producing fresh versions of Viacom brand staples for social media channels. Among them are the following:

  • Bikini Bottom Mysteries, a series of 5-minute episodes culled from existing Spongebob material and aimed at 18-34 year-old Facebook users.
  • A reworking of MTV series Cribs co-produced with and exclusively for distribution on SnapChat funded with shared sponsorship deals. Shot vertically to fit the platform’s format, the sixteen 3-minute long shows produced to date have had “tens of millions of views” Day said.
  •  Between the Scenes slice of The Daily Show distributed on Facebook and YouTube in which host Trevor Noah talks to camera has been streamed 150 million times and landed Noah his first two Emmy nominations.
  • A deal with Twitter brings red-carpet coverage and four show formats—including MTV News and BET Breaks—to the social media service's live TV platform.

Ironically, a decade ago Viacom was locked in a legal battle with Google, alleging that YouTube had engaged in brazen and massive copyright infringement. The parties settled out of court only in 2014.

"A few years ago, frankly, the talk was of YouTube taking your money," Day said. "The truth now is YouTube is one of the most mature advertising platforms available. There are many ways to monetize from pre- and mid-roll to sponsorship and branded content. YouTube is a priority platform for us.

"With Snap we've done some robust sponsorships sales and with Facebook we continue to licence content either as live streaming or original shows."

She acknowledged that extending the reach and relevance of existing Viacom TV-centric shows among new mobile-first audiences could be a mere marketing play.

"There is an intention that as these platforms evolve there is an opportunity to build a strong business. It may not necessarily replace linear TV dollars in the short term but in the longer term it allows us to diversify our revenue and to build new revenue streams for the future."

She continued, "In the early days of online video platforms there was a perception that digital short form was all cats on skateboards. We’ve come a long way and evolved to a place where you are no longer at the mercy of the linear clock. How long your content is, is dictated by the story, by the platform, and your budget."

VDS is one of several big media attempts to capture new audiences with premium produced short form content.

BBC Studios Chief Executive Tim Davie used his keynote speech at IBC2018 to announce a new fund to back high-end short form projects.

Former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg announced earlier this month that he had raised $1 billion to invest in a new short-form platform in which Viacom has invested.

"You would never bet against Jeffrey," says Day. "He’s been trying to build this vision for many years. If anyone can do it, he can."

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