CBS missed its internal deadline to name a new CEO — and don't expect a decision soon

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It’s been almost six months since CBS hired search firm Korn Ferry to help select a new CEO for the broadcast network. Joe Ianniello has been filling this role on an interim basis since September after Les Moonves resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations.

And still, no CEO has been hired. No announcement is imminent either, according to a people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the search process is private.

CBS has never publicly offered a timeline for how long it would take the company to name a new CEO. But sources close to the CBS board told CNBC in January that the company hoped to name one by the end of the first quarter.

That soft deadline has now come and gone.

So what’s going on?

Shari Redstone, the vice chair of both CBS and Viacom, would like to put together the two companies, according to people familiar with the matter.

But she can’t magically will it to happen — she’ll need the CBS board to come to the same conclusion. Redstone wants a larger CBS in part so it can compete for National Football League broadcast rights when they’re up after the 2022 season, as CBS’s retransmission fee growth is largely dependent on having NFL games. But there will probably be a slew of bidders for the rights, possibly including tech giants Apple and Amazon, who have much larger balance sheets.

If CBS is to merge with Viacom (or anyone else), a CEO would obviously want to know this before taking the job. According to several sources familiar with the matter, Redstone would like current Viacom CEO Bob Bakish to run or be the No. 2 at a combined CBS and Viacom. It’s important to Redstone that Bakish can work well with whomever is named CEO at CBS when the companies come together, the people said.

CBS has more clarity on what a merger with Viacom will look like now that Viacom has reached a multiyear carriage deal with AT&T and its DirecTV subsidiary. The sides know each other very well and agreed on economic terms for a deal last year, so due diligence shouldn’t take too long. If the board wants to start merger discussions, it doesn’t make any sense to name a CEO before making a decision on M&A. The two decisions would naturally be paired, especially if the CBS CEO is to become the No. 2 to Bakish at a combined company.

Sometimes you swing and miss.

Originally, CBS was looking for a diverse candidate with the right type of experience to lead a large media company in the midst of a changing industry. CBS couldn’t find that person, according to two people familiar with the process.

More recently, the CBS board, led by Chairman Strauss Zelnick, has been searching for a leader who has already been a CEO and has previous experience with M&A integration, according to people familiar with the matter. That candidate also may not exist or be available to CBS.

CBS has interviewed current board member and Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner, according to people familiar with the matter. But Goldner’s experience isn’t with media and he already has a job. Several other candidates were nixed because they either didn’t have the CEO experience or the M&A background, two of the people said. Extending the search allows CBS to keep looking.

If CBS can’t find a slam dunk candidate, it increases the chances that interim CEO Joe Ianniello could be named the full-time chief — at least until a merger is consummated. Ianniello hasn’t been offered that job yet, two of the people said, and while he’s unlikely to be named CEO of a combined CBS-Viacom, he could be the No. 2 to Bakish at a combined CBS-Viacom, the people said.

Because CBS never set a firm deadline, it also allows the company to find people who may have not been interested or available several months ago. The next soft “deadline” (in quotes) CBS will face will be its quarterly earnings, scheduled for May 2. If there’s an announcement — perhaps a joint announcement on both the CEO and merger plans — May 2 makes some sense. Because CBS knows every question in its earnings conference call will be focused on the company’s future.

But even May 2 isn’t a hard deadline. CBS could whisk away questions on the company’s future because the board won’t be on the conference call, and the executives don’t have a say in naming the next CEO.

The only hard deadline is June 30. That’s when Ianniello’s contract as interim CEO is up.

If you’re on the edge of your seats waiting for an announcement, you may want to loosen that seat belt.

A CBS spokesman declined to comment.

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