Viacom CEO Bakish blackballed from Sun Valley, Idaho media conference

As media giants CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc. move closer to a blockbuster merger, the leading candidate to run the combined entity has been blackballed from one of the seminal events in the media world: Allen & Company’s high profile conference held every July in Sun Valley, Idaho, FOX Business has learned.

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For the second consecutive year, Robert Bakish, Viacom’s CEO was not invited, an unusual move that pits one of Corporate America’s most prominent media executives whose power may grow in the coming weeks against an investment-bank that is considered the media industry’s top deal maker, FOX Business has learned.

Known as the “summer-camp for billionaires,” the conference features a who’s who in the media-business ranging from Amazon chief Jeff Bezos to Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, Disney chief Bob Iger and Rupert Murdoch, chairman of new Fox. The company, which was born from the $71 billion Disney - 21st Century’s Fox deal, is the parent company of FOX Business and Fox News.

Allen & Co.’s snub of Bakish is apparent retribution for the Viacom chief complaining to his board about the firm’s investment banking work on a high-profile deal, and that the boutique investment firm shouldn’t be hired on future deals, people close to Bakish tell FOX Business.

While Bakish sat out last year’s confab without much fanfare, this year’s snub carries more weight since Bakish is emerging as the favorite to run the combined Viacom and CBS, a merger that would create one of the nation’s largest media outfits with some of the biggest brands in the industry, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

CBS was and continues to be a ratings leader, nabbing five of the top 10 television series, including major sports and news programming. Viacom controls such broadcast staples as MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and movie studio Paramount Pictures. As FOX Business was first to report, the two media companies controlled by the Redstone family’s National Amusements Inc. holding company, are conducting serious merger discussions that could result in a deal in the coming weeks after nearly two years of on-again, off-again discussions.

People with knowledge of the negotiations say the deal talks are fluid, and either party could walk away and seek other suitors. Meanwhile, no decision has been made about Bakish’s position if the deal does go through.

If a merger agreement is reached, an announcement could potentially come in June or in early July, around the same time the conference is scheduled to take place and when Bakish may ascend to the throne of the CBS-Viacom empire, these people add.

A spokesman for Bakish had no comment. A spokeswoman for National Amusements declined comment. A press representative for Allen & Co., didn’t respond to emails and telephone calls for comment.

The invite-only conference has been a mecca for business leaders in media and technology given Allen & Co.’s dominance in advising these companies and their top executives on various transactions. Indeed, an invite to the coveted retreat is considered a status symbol even among the corporate elite, so much so that for years, former CBS chief Les Moonves became a fixture at the Idaho event, occasionally joined by his long-time No. 2, Joseph Ianniello.

Ianniello, now head of CBS following Moonves’ ouster over sexual misconduct allegations, did not receive an invite for this year’s conference; however, the head of CBS Interactive, Jim Lanzone, has received an invitation and plans to attend according to sources familiar with the matter.

Bakish reportedly enjoyed attending the conference as well, and was last seen there in 2017. But that was before he and Allen & Co. butted heads over an ill-fated bid by Viacom to purchase Scripps Networks Interactive in 2018. He subsequently complained to Viacom’s board about Allen & Co.’s work on the proposed transaction and sought to get the firm removed as a banker or adviser on any and all Viacom deals.

With that, Bakish’s name began to disappear from the invite list for the conference, according to people with knowledge of the attendees.

“This is pretty childish on Allen & Company’s part,” said an associate of Bakish. “He complained about them because he thought they weren’t doing the right thing… they should grow up.”

Bakish is said to be personally angered by the snub even as his boss, National Amusement’s president Shari Redstone has been invited and plans to attend, people with knowledge of the matter say.

However, Bakish may ultimately get the last laugh if he does emerge as the new CEO of the combined CBS-Viacom, an entity that could have a total market value of around $30 billion making it one of the business’s largest players.

Viacom and CBS are separate companies that were spun out of National Amusements in 2006; however, the Redstone family, led by the ailing media mogul Sumner Redstone maintains a controlling interest in both outfits. With her 95-year old father incapacitated, Shari Redstone, now essentially runs the conglomerate.

In 2016, Shari Redstone proposed merging the two companies—a move that was resisted by Moonves who feared a weaker Viacom would drag down the stronger CBS. Moonves sought to take away Redstone's controlling interest in CBS in order to either maintain independence or merge with another outfit other than Viacom.

The two sides eventually reached an agreement that gave CBS until September 2020 to possibly find another merger partner before it would consider merging with Viacom. However, with Moonves' September 2018 exit and a lack of interest in CBS from deep pocketed tech companies that are building their own content, the merger with Viacom appears more likely according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Bakish has run Viacom since November 2016 following the ouster of Philippe Dauman. He was initially considered a dark horse to head a joint CBS-Viacom venture that Shari Redstone had been pushing. But his star has risen inside the Redstone empire given Viacom’s strong financial performance under Bakish and his close relationship with Shari Redstone. While no decision has been made about the possible CEO of the new company, if a deal is reached, Ianniello is regarded as being too close to Moonves to get the top job.

A CBS spokesman had no comment.