Viacom CEO Bob Bakish speaks at ITVFest

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MANCHESTER — Viacom CEO Bob Bakish believes that there has never been a more important time for high-quality entertainment — as long as that entertainment is produced with diversity and inclusion in mind.

As the keynote speaker at Manchester's Independent Television and Film Festival (ITVFest) on Friday, Bakish spoke at Burr and Burton's Riley Center for the Arts on everything from the Harvey Weinstein scandal to the influence of media streaming services.

Interviewed by journalist Alicia Menendez, Bakish, who oversees brands such as Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV, and BET, was perhaps hardest pressed when asked about Weinstein, who has been accused by more than 30 women of sexual harassment and assault in the past week.

"I would be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge what is happening in the media industry at the moment — an explosive New York Times story around Harvey Weinstein and other stories that will inevitably follow," said Menendez, who hosts a show on the Fusion cable network. "How, at a corporate level, do you ensure that there is a zero-tolerance policy for that type of sexual harassment?"

"First of all the Harvey story is deplorable and mind-blowing; I think mostly because it's been going on for so long," said Bakish. "Viacom is known for culture, and if you go back 50 years we were widely regarded for having one of the best, cultures in the entertainment business when it comes to recognizing creativity, recognizing diversity of ideas — and part of that is also seeing value in employees and respecting diverse voices and creating a healthy work environment."

According to Bakish, that culture is augmented by embracing diversity at all levels of operation.

"One thing I will say which has helped Viacom is that we actually have extremely strong representation of females in our company," said Bakish. "We mirror the U.S. population demographically, and we also have excellent representation at the senior level."

That diversity is necessary not only for a healthy workplace, said the executive, but also in creating compelling content for audiences.

"Looking at the demographic composition of the United States, or as we say looking at our audiences, they don't all look like me," said Bakish. "They are white, they are black, they are Asian, they are Hispanic, they're young, they're old, they're male, they're female — and so we fundamentally believe that to entertain diverse audiences it requires a diverse notion of ideas."

Considering Viacom's global reach, Bakish asserts that great idea's have no demographic when it comes to entertainment.

"One of the things I fundamentally believe is that great ideas come from anywhere," said Bakish. "That notion reflects the value and diversity of ideas on a global basis."

While Viacom has a long history of embracing diverse ideas, according to Bakish, the way those ideas are consumed by audiences has changed fundamentally in recent years with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

"The consumer is more control than they've ever been. That control is certainly about how we experience entertainment," said Bakish. "It is this fundamental revolution centered around people that can contribute to the production side. Against that backdrop you see traditional players wanting on demand experiences."

Beyond streaming services, options like syndication can allow popular shows to be accessible to audiences in a variety of ways.

"If you look the biggest hits of the past, a show like "Friends," what see you is that show — even though it isn't in current production — it lives a life in many places," said Bakish. "If you look at the audience that show attracts it's larger than it ever was. I think that's the reality of fragmentation."

Though media may be more accessible now than it has ever been, says Bakish, that accessibility meets demand — especially in a political climate that leaves many viewers looking for an escape.

"Right after the election, and I think in the time since, research showed that viewers wanted two diametrically opposed things. That they were more tuned-in to the news, they wanted more information than they had ever wanted before," said Menendez. "At the same time, they wanted a complete and total break and escape from everything that's happening in the world."

"Well Viacom is not in the news business; we're just in the entertainment business," said Bakish. "And there's never been a more important time to provide high quality entertainment."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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