CBS suspends CEO search, fuelling Viacom merger expectations

FILE PHOTO: The CBS "eye" and logo are seen outside the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th St. in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 29, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

(Reuters) - CBS Corp on Tuesday said it had suspended its search for a new chief executive and extended the role of its interim CEO Joseph Ianniello until the end of the year, renewing speculation the U.S. media company will seek to merge with peer Viacom Inc.

Ianniello, who was previously the company’s chief operating officer, became interim CEO in September after the CBS board ousted then-CEO Leslie Moonves over accusations of sexual harassment and assault.

Ianniello’s interim role included a clause stating that if he was not named permanent CEO by June 30, 2019, he could leave the company with severance estimated to reach $70 million, according a source familiar with the matter. The same clause applies to his new agreement ending Dec. 31.

Moonves has denied any wrongdoing.

Speculation over the past few months about CBS considering for the third time a tie-up with Viacom hindered its search for a CEO as candidates worried about how their position could be jeopardized in a potential merger, sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

Viacom is also controlled by the Redstone family’s National Amusements Inc.

Advocates for a combined CBS-Viacom company believe it would have greater scale to compete in a rapidly consolidating media world led by Netflix and Walt Disney Co.

Extending Ianniello’s role as interim CEO and dropping the search for a permanent CEO appears to set a time frame for how long CBS believes it would take to complete a deal.

Reporting by Helen Coster; Editing by Kenneth Li and Chris Reese