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Sumner Redstone: The King of Content

My plans for the current staycation are to put a dent in the unread book pile. The first book out was timely since the subject died this week. 

Recently departed media mogul, Sumner Redstone, was an uncompromising man. The King of Content by Keach Hagey covers Sumner’s early life and business moves but has enough about his tumultuous personal life to be gossipy.

The advantage of the gossip is that this book reads better than a set of business cases, which it could have been as there are remarkable successes and crushing failures in the deals he made throughout his life. Covering Redstone’s early days, we find a mob connected father and a neurotic mother nurturing Sumner’s formidable intellect. This intellect was welded to a ruthless competitive streak and the combination of both proved to be explosive.

Powering him through the most prestigious school in Boston and into Harvard in short order Redstone breaks Japanese codes during World War II; becomes disillusioned with practising law; side-lines his brother to take over the family drive-in movie business; and then wages all-out war against other media companies.

Scooping up Viacom, MTV Networks and CBS Redstone consolidated several prestigious media assets under his control. Control being Redstone’s internal drive. Business associates and family members whom he cannot control are discarded. Sometimes with regret, but not too much regret. Redstone cries a lot as he’s sticking the knife into a family member or a long-time business associate, but he never cries for too long.

The arc of Redstone’s media empire follows the arc of his life. As he began to physically decline so did his investments. Mistakes were made. There was an obsession with videogame studio Midway and after investing $800 million in the beleaguered company it was sold for $100,000 and the investment written off when it was clear Midway could not be turned around by his team.

Viacom passed on acquiring Marvel, with whom their studio Paramount had the original distribution deal for the Marvel cinematic universe. That was a costly mistake when in subsequent years Paramount released box office bombs while Disney made billions from the Avengers.

The decline was not just financial. Redstone was a man of voracious sexual appetite and it is a matter of record that he left sexually explicit voicemails recounting a foursome he had the night before with the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans and two women. He would have been 90 at the time and a daily user of Viagra.

Throw in numerous inter-family power struggles for control of the fortune, an old man with a string of young gold-digging girlfriends, everyone getting slapped with lawsuits and you have an accurate synopsis of his final years.

Every good story needs a hero and in this story his daughter, Shari, has been cast in that role. She battles not only her father, his string of girlfriends and his sycophants but also the Board of Directors at Viacom and CBS. After all the bloodletting she stands victorious a top a pile of corpses and has as much control over the now merged ViacomCBS as her father ever had.

Sumner frequently stated that his ambition was to live forever and never carve up the Empire he had built. It strikes me that his daughter is much more pragmatic and for her corporation, ViacomCBS, to survive it will have to buy other companies or itself be sold to someone larger.

 Either way as in business and in life, control over others or yourself doesn’t last forever.