(This Oct 26 story in the 11th paragraph, corrects to say Viacom announced plans to launch its streaming Nickelodeon channel in Japan earlier this month, from launched it)
By Jessica Toonkel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Viacom Inc (VIAB.O) is trying a new tactic in its multi-front effort to win back younger U.S. viewers ditching expensive cable TV packages: seeking deals directly with mobile phone networks.
Media companies and mobile networks are increasingly dependent on each other for content and distribution. AT&T Inc’s (T.N) pending $85.4 billion purchase of Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), for example, is a means for the No. 2 wireless carrier to own the content that its mobile users want to stream.
New York-based Viacom already has mobile agreements in other countries. Now, it is in talks with U.S. carriers to see if it can execute a similar strategy, Viacom Chief Executive Bob Bakish told Reuters in an exclusive interview recently.
The company is setting up a division that ultimately will have at least 100 people to produce short-form shows that are more easily watched on mobile phones, he said.
“There are hundreds of millions of mobile users in the U.S. who are in the nascent stages of consuming content on their devices and certainly are in the nascent stages of doing it on a pay basis,” Bakish said.
Bakish declined to say which carriers his company has approached.
The stakes are high for Viacom and its traditional TV rivals, which need to find new sources of revenue as they grapple with shrinking cable subscribers and fees from distribution deals.
“Ten years ago, Viacom would never have wanted to do anything like this because they wouldn’t want to jeopardize their relationships with the traditional distributors,” said Terry Denson, a media consultant and former head of content at Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N). “The balance of power has shifted as the opportunity for growth lies with newer distribution platforms like social media, smartphones and tablets.”
While U.S. mobile carriers are interested in content, it is unclear if they will pay for Viacom’s shows. But Viacom can no longer bank on future fee increases from the traditional cable and satellite distributors. Earlier this month, after fractious talks, it agreed to lower fees so its networks would feature on all cable bundles offered by Charter Communications Inc’s (CHTR.O) Spectrum.
That makes dealing with mobile carriers, which it has done elsewhere, more attractive.
In Japan, Viacom has two deals with mobile companies for its MTV and Nickelodeon apps. In the 18 months since launching, mobile consumption of Viacom’s MTV Hits, a music video service available on AbemaTV, a free, ad-supported web-based mobile service, has surpassed its MTV Japan TV channel, Viacom said. The two share ad revenue.
Earlier this month, Viacom announced plans to launch a streaming Nickelodeon channel in Japan with dTV-Channel, a subscription-based service owned by Japanese mobile carrier NTT Docomo Inc (9437.T).
In Indonesia, the No. 1 mobile carrier Telkomsel has started offering Nickelodeon children’s programming as part its data plans for its 173 million subscribers.
Terms of the deals were not disclosed, but Viacom said 20 percent of its Japanese distribution revenues in 2017 were from streaming clients, up from about 2 percent in 2014.
While U.S mobile carriers are interested in video, it is important for content to be packaged to entice mobile viewers to keep watching, said Brian Angiolet, global chief media and content officer at Verizon.
“The content community sees this opportunity but they can’t just raid what they are already doing,” Angiolet said. “It can’t look like what they have done with traditional partners.”
Reporting By Jessica Toonkel; Editing by Anna Driver and Bill Rigby