The original Viacom started as CBS's "film sales" division in the mid-1950s, founded to sell some of the network's biggest hits into the syndication market. Back then, CBS had a policy of either owning its shows outright or purchasing the distribution rights, making it so that most of CBS's output from 1950 to 1970 ended being syndicated by CBS as well.
This changed in 1971, when the FCC adopted the "fin-syn" rule, which stated that television networks could no longer syndicate their own shows. (This rule has since been repealed.) As a result, CBS decided to spin its sales division off. Following this lead, Viacom became one of the busiest syndicators in the USA. Armed with huge hits such as I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hawaii Five-O and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Viacom was doing well for itself by the early 1980s, and was looking to expand.
Its first big purchase was MTV Networksnote in 1985. They already owned another Warner-Amex network, The Movie Channel, after merging it with their own Showtime pay-TV service. Later, Viacom got the distribution rights to The Cosby Show, still a massive hit at the time and a huge potential money maker. The really big purchases came later though after the company fell under the control of theatre magnate Sumner M. Redstone, as Viacom successfully devoured Paramount in 1994, Blockbuster Video the same year and Spelling Entertainment Group note in 1999 (it had already acquired 78% of Spelling via the Blockbuster deal) and finally its own former parent, CBS, in 2000, though its last major purchase was that of BET in 2001.
In 2005, however, it was decided that Viacom should be split in two. The rationale given at the time was that MTV, Nickelodeon and Paramount were "hot" and the rest of CBS was more "cool", as far as growth was concerned. Viacom spun off MTV Networks and Paramount as a "new" Viacom that took the name, and then the old Viacom renamed itself CBS Corporation. (Paramount Television and its library was kept by CBS, separating it from the movie studio. It was soon merged with CBS' in-house studio to form CBS Paramount Television. The studio is now named CBS Television Studios.) However, many people actually believed that the real reason for the split was a result of declining revenues caused by bad publicity stemming from Janet Jackson's Wardrobe Malfunction during the half-time show for Super Bowl XXXVIII (which was produced by MTV, whom the NFL has banned from ever producing another half-time show; the de-merger conveniently separated MTV from CBS), and a report on 60 Minutes spinoff show 60 Minutes II questioning George W. Bush's service in the National Guard, which later turned out to be forged. The separation was also a Solomon-esque resolution to an intra-company "bake-off" between co-COOs Les Moonves and Tom Freston to replace Sumner Redstone, the majority owner of the company, as CEO. Moonves was still the CEO of CBS Corporation until 2018 when Moonves was forced out amid sexual harassment allegations, while post-separation Viacom CEO Freston was fired several years afterward and replaced with Philippe Dauman, a Viacom director and close friend of Redstone.
Dauman's run as CEO of Viacom marked a bumpy road; while the company was successful in acquiring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise from creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, a strained relationship between Dauman and both sides of DreamWorks SKG led to their bosses, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, shedding Paramount for Disney and Fox, respectively (although both would later join Universal). Viacom's intention to move further into animation hit a speed bump after Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation bolted from the firm, and tensions finally reached a boiling point in 2016 when, after several steep drops in the stock market, Sumner's very estranged daughter, Shari Redstone, returned to the picture. Sumner, who is now in his 90's, threw Dauman and partner George Abrams off his trust, a move that has incurred a high-profile lawsuit from Dauman; the feud between the two former friends has the potential of ending Dauman's tenure at Viacom and getting the board of directors overhauled in what the press is calling "a Game of Thrones".
Rumors are now swirling about a potential "re-merger" between Viacom and CBS and a possible sale of part or all of Paramount given that studios' bumpy track record in recent years (it's consistently been the worst-performing of the Big Six film studios every year since 2012). The ousting of Les Moonves in 2018 over sexual misconduct allegations has further cast the future of CBS and Viacom in doubt.
In an effort to turn its fortunes around, Viacom put all attention and resources to focus on six brands: MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., BET, Comedy Central, and Paramount. Spike TV rebranded in 2018 as Paramount Network in order to bring it in line with the strategy. Viacom has also taken a dive into the streaming world with their purchase of Pluto TV in 2019, a free service modeled after cable television but with primarily internet-sourced content.
It's infamous among many YouTube users for removing videosnote , in large part because of former head Dauman's utter hatred toward digital media. Fortunately, things have started to cool down since his ouster. Before that, it was notorious for attacking Star Trek fan sites.
Besides being a syndicator of reruns, Viacom has also produced and/or distributed several shows by itself:
- Celebrity Double Dare (failed 1987 pilot with adults and celebrities playing a version of Nick's quintessential game show with all the mess and fun taken away; hosted by Bruce Jenner, who also hosted some non-celebrity pilots; soon after, plain old Double Dare would enter syndication (mainly on and co-syndicated by Fox Television Stations))
- Diagnosis: Murder
- Ed (bizarrely under the byline "A Paramount Company"; this was because of Viacom's production arm having been put under Paramount TV at that point)
- Finders Keepers (1987-89 syndicated run; also w/ Fox Television Stations)
- The Master
- The Perry Mason reunion movies, starting with "Perry Mason Returns".
- Remote Control (1989-90 syndicated run)
- Various other reunion vehicles based on old CBS shows, such as "Return to Mayberry".
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch
- Split Second (1986-87 revival; w/ Hatos-Hall and several Canadian TV stations)
- The Adventures of Superboy (TV distribution only in North America, which played a big part in the series being Screwed by the Lawyers)
- The Super Mario Bros Super Show! (TV distribution only)
- You Don't Say! (1978-79 syndicated run)