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Paramount and Skydance are merging — here are 3 questions we have about the deal

 The Paramount logo is displayed at Columbia Square along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Calif. on March 9, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
The Paramount logo is displayed at Columbia Square along Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Calif. on March 9, 2023.

There may be no more giddily optimistic time in media than the moment after a big deal is announced.

In the case of the $8.4 billion agreement that would bring in new owners to run Paramount Global, there are a lot of hopes and dreams riding on incoming CEO David Ellison and how he might reshape a media company which includes everything from Paramount Studios and the CBS broadcast network, to cable channels like MTV and BET and the Paramount+ streaming service.

Film lovers dream that if the new company goes forward, it will maintain Paramount as an independent brand, combining Ellison’s Skydance Media with a venerated film studio over 112 years old that's based in the middle of Los Angeles (they also hope this means the company won’t largely be sold off for parts or swallowed by another huge business, like Sony).

Media insiders wonder if Ellison – backed by $6 billion from his family, including father and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison – can leverage new technologies and Silicon Valley sensibilities to make the company more successful.

And keen observers of power in America hope that nepo baby-turned-mogul David Ellison will serve his family and the company better than previous owner (and fellow nepo baby) Shari Redstone, who inherited Paramount’s parent company National Amusements after the 2020 death of her father, Sumner Redstone. She proceeded to see it lose billions of dollars in value amid a changing media landscape, uncertain leadership and fitful sale negotiations.

Yeah, this may sound like a lot of media nerd nonsense – navel-gazing from an industry notorious for its self-obsession and myopic focus. But a successful rescue of Paramount can also point the way toward a shiny future for an increasingly uncertain media industry, where profits, product and audience are harder to come by. And failure could mean the company that is home to NCIS, Star Trek, MTV and Yellowstone might vanish into media history.

To succeed, Ellison and his backers must answer a load of pressing questions. Here are the ones which loom largest in my mind:

Can new owners really turn around a company that’s grounded in media businesses currently in serious decline?

One of Paramount Global’s biggest challenges is that it’s a media company packed with several businesses that are all struggling at once. Cable channels hobbled by cord cutting. A streaming service which isn’t expected to turn a profit until sometime next year. A broadcast network with an aging audience. A regional theater chain facing declines in moviegoing. And, as the global financial services company Moody’s noted in a recent statement, Paramount is merging with a smaller media company that doesn’t own or control much of its own intellectual property: Skydance Media.

Ellison and Jeff Shell, the former NBCUniversal CEO who would be president of the new company when the deal closes, told Wall Street analysts some of their ideas in a call Monday morning, saying Paramount+ would likely succeed as a part of an “ultimate bundle” of streaming services, with plans to completely rebuild the platform's technology. When it came to their more traditional businesses, like cable TV channels, they talked of managing the decline while implementing $2 billion in cost savings.

But I think mid-level streaming services struggle because they have a tough time offering enough content to convince customers they should be prioritized above or alongside big players like Netflix and Disney+. Will redesigning the platform and getting wedged into a bundle next to bigger players really help distinguish their company?

How will the company be run until the deal closes … in 2025?

The purchase isn’t expected to close until sometime next year. Until then, Paramount Global will likely still be run by the group of three co-CEOs who currently guide the company. Which means a plan could still go forward that the CEOs announced last month, cutting $500 million in costs while exploring the sale of some assets. Black culture-focused cable channel BET has long been the subject of speculation that it might be sold to a mogul like Tyler Perry or Weather Channel owner Byron Allen, for instance.

Producer David Ellison attends the Royal Film Performance and UK Premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" at Leicester Square on May 19, 2022 in London, England.
Eamonn M. McCormack / Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
Getty Images for Paramount Pictures
Producer David Ellison attends the Royal Film Performance and UK Premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" at Leicester Square on May 19, 2022 in London, England.

Last month, online archives for MTV News, CMT news and Comedy Central, which were filled with decades of journalism on pop and country music, were pulled down without warning or explanation by the company. Will more surprise cutbacks surface over the next few months that limit or eliminate content?

In an odd way, it might make sense for Paramount to make more painful reductions now, before the new owners are officially in charge, so Ellison, Shell and their teams can take over outside the shadow of layoffs or serious cutbacks.

When Ellison and Co. take over, it will mean that yet another Hollywood studio will be dominated by Silicon Valley money, including MGM’s purchase by Amazon and the rise of major players like Apple TV+ and Netflix. Which leads to another big question: Will Paramount Global leverage the resources and innovation of the tech world to reinvent a major studio for the modern media moment, or have the forces which are hobbling the company progressed too far?

Will something else happen that could overturn the deal?

Federal regulators must weigh in. And there’s a 45 day window where Paramount’s board of directors could field another offer (though they would have to pay the Skydance group $400 million). Also, stockholders outside the Redstone family who feel shortchanged could file a lawsuit.

But in the rosy glow of a just-announced deal, all these challenges seem like rapidly shrinking images in the rearview mirror. A new brain trust has emerged, aimed at proving that a mid-level media company can survive in today’s times, as the daughter of one business titan hands the reins of her complicated company to the son of another.

Whether any of this adds up to a solution which can save Paramount while also helping cure what ails modern media on a larger scale, may be the biggest question of all.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.