CBS chief Joe Ianniello exits early, replaced by George Cheeks

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Joe Ianniello, the new chairman and chief executive of CBS, on New York Street at the CBS lot in Studio City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Joe Ianniello, the new chairman and chief executive of CBS, on New York Street at the CBS lot in Studio City on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

CBS Chief Executive Joseph Ianniello is making an early exit, just eight weeks after the ViacomCBS merger.

ViacomCBS said Friday that Ianniello no longer would be staying through the end of the year, as initially announced. For a while, it looked like Ianniello would be part of the senior team, helping oversee the integration of the two media companies.

In December, he was promoted to chief executive of the CBS-branded properties. He also received a $70-million stock award as consolation for failing to win the top job at the combined ViacomCBS.

Instead, Viacom head Bob Bakish became chief executive of ViacomCBS. Bakish has been assembling his own team, including George Cheeks, an NBCUniversal studio executive.

Cheeks, who previously worked at Viacom, was named the president and chief executive of CBS Entertainment Group, putting him in charge of its broadcast television network, news, sports, TV stations and syndication arm.

It will be the first time in a quarter-century that someone from outside CBS is tasked with managing the business. The broadcasting company, known for such hits as “NCIS,” “60 Minutes” and “Survivor,” has long favored grooming executives from within.

Cheeks served as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, where he was jointly responsible for the network’s prime-time, late night and scripted daytime programming, including business affairs, marketing, communications, scheduling, West Coast research and digital operations and first-run syndication.

Prior to joining NBC in 2012, Cheeks served as executive vice president for business affairs and general counsel for Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, while also serving as head of standards and practices for Viacom Media. Before that, he served in legal roles at Viacom cable channels Nickelodeon, MTV, CMT and LOGO.

Cheeks held positions at Castle Rock Entertainment and the law firms Loeb & Loeb and Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren & Richman.

Ianniello, who has spent more than 22 years at CBS, managed the publicly traded company through a tumultuous period.

He became acting CEO in September 2018 after former chief executive Leslie Moonves was forced to resign amid a sexual harassment scandal. Ianniello long served as Moonves’ top deputy, and aided the former CEO when he was battling CBS’ controlling shareholder, Shari Redstone, for control of the company. That history, and concerns about CBS’ corporate culture, probably hurt Ianniello’s long-term prospects.

Last summer, when asked about whether he was worried that he may be a short-timer, Ianniello told the Los Angeles Times: “My focus is singularly on the operations of the business. I hope to end my career here at CBS.”

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native made key moves, included naming well-liked veteran producer Susan Zirinsky to run CBS News and tapping respected Showtime Networks head David Nevins as chief creative officer.

Ianniello steered the company’s efforts to become less dependent on advertising by getting fees from cable and satellite providers for carrying its TV signals and led its entry into the digital streaming business with CBS All Access. The strategy has helped the company set records for revenue and earnings per share last year, though steep challenges remain.

His 15-month employment agreement, reached in November, provided him as much as $31 million to serve through the end of 2020. If he receives his full payout, Ianniello will walk away with $100 million.

Meanwhile, ViacomCBS has begun a round of layoffs. The company is expected to cut hundreds of jobs in Los Angeles and New York in order to extract $500 million in cost savings – a promise made to Wall Street. Six senior ad executives left the company earlier this month as part of a restructuring.

Staff Writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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