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Viacom CEO Calls MTV US Strategy a ‘Mistake’

Bob Bakish also denied interest in Vice at the UBS Global Media & Communications Conference

Good news for those who want their MTV the way it used to be, with actual music: parent company Viacom does too.

During a Monday afternoon session at the 44th annual UBS Global Media & Communications Conference in New York, Viacom Acting President & CEO Robert Bakish — who formerly ran the media giant’s European operations — acknowledged flaws in the recent programming strategy of MTV, Viacom’s erstwhile flagship.

“On the U.S. side, they strayed a little bit away from music,” Bakish said. “That was a mistake.”

Bakish said MTV’s European channels consciously opted out of the reality and scripted television-heavy diet the U.S. network chose — with self-evident results.

“We’ve grown share three years running,” he said. “You’ve seen what happened in the U.S.”

He added that he expects MTV’s audience “story” to turn positive by next spring, and credited new “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah with building some momentum for Comedy Central.

But Bakish didn’t shy away from identifying weaknesses in Viacom’s TV properties, and the disappointing two-year performance from Viacom’s movie studio, Paramount Pictures. And in a year full of executive turmoil — Bakish is the third Viacom CEO since August — he hinted at more C-suite changes to come.

“There’s an opportunity to change the conversation,” he said, mentioning Viacom’s recent changing of its U.S. distribution head. “I think leadership will be part of changing the conversation.”

Bakish also waded into the TV executive topic du jour: the rise of over-the-top streaming services, both “skinny bundles” like AT&T’s DirecTV Now and niche, direct-to-consumer offerings like Time Warner’s HBO Now. Viacom has in fact launched its own direct-to-consumer products, namely BET Play, which allows BET fans not in the U.S. to access content including the network’s TV series and awards shows.

And while Bakish said BET Play was a success in reaching overlooked fans of the network, which isn’t the mass-audience product that Viacom networks like MTV are in most international markets, he prefers working with other distributors as part of a “skinny bundle”

“My own personal view is in terms of new tech distribution, I favor the virtual MVPD play,” he said, using a technical term for an internet-based multichannel streaming service. “When at all possible I much prefer to work with them in partnership than a direct-to-consumer play.”

And while he didn’t provide much on merger discussions between Viacom and CBS, Bakish did make it clear that one rumored transaction wasn’t going to happen.

“We’re not doing a Vice deal,” he said.