Sam Cooper has spent 22 years at Viacom, but her role is shifting as the industry redefines itself. Cooper oversees subscription video-on-demand licensing for the company, scoping out the over-the-top landscape as well-funded new players enter the market. Viacom and CBS closed on their pair-up in December, and the merger caused “a bit of a pivot” for Cooper, as she puts it.
“I kind of doubled down on the types of transactions I love,” she said. “I got a little further away from the pay TV transactions and deals I’ve been working on for 22 years to do something that’s a little more global.”
Cooper is focused on content licensing, seeing which series within CBS, Showtime, Nickelodeon and other ViacomCBS networks would do best on an external streaming service, or if they’d play better in-house. Late in 2019, she worked on a streaming rights deal that saw 23 seasons of Comedy Central’s South Park go to HBO Max, a pact valued at more than $500 million. She also worked out international deals for the animated series on Netflix and Amazon.
“Before, it was separate Paramount, separate CBS, separate Viacom, different people negotiating those,” Cooper said. “Now it’s all one front door.”
ViacomCBS includes MTV, CBS, BET, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, Paramount’s film library and other entities. Cooper has held an array of posts within Viacom, including senior VP of content distribution and business development at Viacom Media Networks and BET Networks. Prior to coming on board at Viacom, she was in content distribution for Food Network, and ran communications for the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM).
The ViacomCBS marriage upended Cooper’s department, with many key figures moving on. “The final few months of the calendar year were stressful for a lot of people,” she said. “We managed the process to make it as humane and transparent as possible.”
The OTT arena is mostly undefined, and Cooper appreciates having a say in the corporate strategy. “How direct-to-consumer strategy evolves is a living, breathing organism at the moment,” she said. “The great thing about working for [president and CEO] Bob Bakish, he loves hearing different voices and different points of view. I believe that, wherever we land in terms of long-term strategy, it will be with a great deal of forethought and discussion.”
Cooper cited a handful of key Viacom figures from the past as mentors in her career, including Judy McGrath, Tom Freston and Nicole Browning. “They helped me understand what it means to love what you do and have a really good time doing it,” she said. “They taught me how to manage teams and inspire people.”
Cooper keeps an open door for younger colleagues with executive ambitions. “I’m so thankful for my mentors early on across in the business in helping me to forge my own path in the industry,” she said. “I am continuously looking to champion the next generation — my door is always open, and I’m a huge advocate in helping young professionals identify and follow their passions.”
There’s a lot to learn from the example Cooper sets, her colleagues say. “Sam brings a level of expertise to her role that is unmatched,” ViacomCBS executive VP, general counsel and secretary Christa D’Alimonte said. “She approaches every negotiation with a deep understanding of what we want to achieve, but also a recognition of what our partners want to achieve — and she appreciates how important it is to drive value for both sides. She’s played a pivotal role in so many of our distribution relationships and deals, including the broader partnership arrangements that Viacom negotiated over the past couple of years.”
The mother of two, Cooper studies her children’s viewing patterns for a glimpse at what the future of television might look like. “If my kids’ screen time is any indication, I think people are consuming orders of magnitude more than they were five years ago,” she said.
That includes individual screen time and co-viewing. Regarding the latter, Cooper mentioned watching documentaries, RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Bachelor with the kids. “I don’t love The Bachelor, my teenager does,” she said. “If she wants to spend time with me, I’ll sit there and watch The Bachelor.”
Vino and Victuals
Watching on her own, Cooper enjoys The Real Housewives, Schitt’s Creek and Fleabag.
She and the family enjoy skiing, and Cooper sees a lot of live music — the Lumineers, Hozier and Mumford & Sons of late — with a group of women who also work in television.
She also loves hosting dinner parties at her Westchester County (New York) home. “Good music, good wine, good lighting,” Cooper said. “Having my favorite people in my home, enjoying themselves, is my very favorite thing in the whole wide world.”
Cooper ventured to Amsterdam in late February to get to know the company’s international team. The number of SVOD clients is rapidly growing. Disney+ and Apple TV+ came to be in November, NBCU’s Peacock and HBO Max arrive this spring.
“There are a lot more relationships to build,” she said, “and a lot more content to talk about. We are hitting the ground running.”
Career Highlights: Launching Logo TV and achieving full distribution in record time (“I am an avid supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, so I loved being a part of the team that helped launch Logo back in 2005”).
Navigating carriage negotiations year-round. (“While I am always relieved when we reach an agreement, I am also proud of how I handled each of them.”)
Having a front row seat to countless cultural happenings, whether it was attending the Kids’ Choice Awards to see Katy Perry get slimed, watching Beyoncé announce her pregnancy at the VMAs or seeing a taping of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Quotable: “What assets should we license to a third party and what assets should we keep in house? It’s all part of an evolving strategy and it’s really fun to be at the front line of it and have a voice at the table.”