Who Did Sumner Redstone Really Screw (Over)?

I once had the chance to eavesdrop on what can only be described as locker room talk between a couple of male billionaire media moguls.  One was recently married, and happily so, effusive in his love and affection for a strong woman who he professed rescued him from a life of serial dating and horndogging, The other was in the midst of a bitter divorce and was already working on his next spousal conquest, a significantly younger woman at that.  At the time, the public didn’t know the identity of this woman, who would later become (ironically) tabloid fodder, but insiders certainly did–she was an ezecutive at one of the company’s non-U.S. holdings.

As they joked after yet another forgettable strategy meeting I was invited to steer that the two moguls attended, the happier one turned to the other and kidded, “You know, since you’re ‘shtupping’ a younger woman now, you should know they have this new thing called viagra.  Sumner raves about it!   You know, he just got divorced, and he’s got a younger lady. too.  Let’s call him, maybe he’ll lend you a couple of pills.  They’re expensive, you know”.  (The redness of the divorcing mogul’s face strongly suggested he had already gotten onto that bandwagon).

Sumner Murray (Rothstein) Redstone was unquestionably one of the most brilliant and aggressive media executives of the last two centuries.  In 1987, he led a hostile takeover of Viacom, a company with ownership of classic series produced for CBS like I LOVE LUCY, distribution rights to the most sought-after network comedy, THE COSBY SHOW, and was early in establishing the MTV Networks dynasty that encompassed the likes of MTV, Nickelodeon and, soon, Comedy Central), and also established Showtime as a viable and profitable contender in pay TV to HBO.  He followed that up in 1994 by beating out Barry Diller and John Malone, for control of Paramount Pictures, raising his bid three times to secure what he saw as a potent Hollywood brand, and when the studio went on in the late 90s to produce award-winning films like TITANIC and BRAVEHEART, Redstone’ became a de facto Hollywood mogul.  By the end of the 20th century, he engineered a merger with CBS (ironically the company from which Viacom’s assets were created from three decades earlier) after the Fin-Syn rulings of the FCC barred networks from having a financial stake in their shows), and added the Tiffany Network, as well as Infinity Broadcasting and dozens of top-rated radio stations, to his portfolio.

But for as impressive and ruthless as he was a media mogul, that was nothing compared to the lion in winter that was unleashed when this chain of events unfurled, roughly around the time I learned of his love of Viagra.  Per Wikipedia:

In 1947, he married Phyllis Gloria Raphael.[82] They had two children: Brent Redstone and Shari Redstone. In 1999, they divorced when Phyllis Raphael served Sumner Redstone a 3 billion dollar divorce lawsuit which accused the mogul of adultery and cruelty.[83] Sumner was seen with Hollywood producer Christine Peters in Paris and was quoted as saying at the time that he “wanted to spend the rest of his life with Christine”[84] As a result of the divorce, Redstone moved to Los Angeles where he continued to romantically pursue Peters.

But Christine never married Sumner.  He did marry another younger woman, a teacher named Paula Fortunato, but that marriage ended in 2009, and wasn’t all that strong while it existed.  As readers of the recently published Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy have learned, Redstone’s pursuit of power and control was even more ruthless in the bedroom than it was in the boardroom.  As The Guardian’s Edward Helmore described:

The book, by New York Times journalists James Stewart and Rachel Abrams, paints a fresh picture of a corporate culture that believed that so long as the stock went up, and complex C-suite power games were in play, there was no compelling reason to place checks on the appetites of those whose need for control spanned institutional and sexual power.

Many incidents, but not all, involved Redstone himself. The son of a Boston linoleum salesman, Redstone finished at the top of his class at the Boston Latin School and won a scholarship to Harvard. He had helped crack Japanese codes during World War II, and turned his father’s two drive-in theater business into multi-billion media behemoth of multiplexes – a term he coined – infused with the smell of popcorn.

According to Unscripted, Redstone amended his trust more than 40 times to add or remove beneficiaries, often the women he dated who got progressively younger as he got older. Several received $20m, “a lot” received $10m, and “many, many” received over $1m.

“Some say I created Mission: Impossible, and some say that this mission is impossible,” Redstone told Andelin in a message on her voicemail. “But I made this mission possible… I know that if you called me back and you were a risk‑taker, this call could perhaps change your life.” He sent her a crystal‑encrusted handbag in the shape of a panther. “I’m a panther and I’m going to pounce,” read a note.

Redstone reportedly dated his grandson’s girlfriends. “He acts like a 15‑year‑old kid at summer camp,” one executive remarked. At age 85, he boasted on a retreat for fellow media moguls: “I have the vital statistics of a 20-year-old!”

And this 20-year-old like panther had an equally voracious and predatory underling in Les Moonves, who ran his CBS businesses essentially unchecked, and highly successfully, which was, of course, Redstone’s primary yardstick.  As the 2000s and 2010s unfolded, Moonves gained greater day-to-day power and control of more of Redstone’s businesses, as Redstone became increasingly focused on the likes of Andelin, not to mention his live-in girlfriend Sydney Holland.  These women ultimately seized control of Redstone’s life and schedule and had increasing influence on his business decisions, much to the consternation of his children.  Son Brent was ultimately bought out of most the businesses.  Daughter Shari was also estranged from her father, but as his physical and mental infirmities began to take hold, even with her father’s seeming distance she proved to be as tenacious and formidable as her dad.

And as Helmore describes,  she took full advantage of a cultural shift to ultimately beat her beloved Daddy at his own game:

As Redstone became increasing senile, his daughter tried to expel his minders and, later, to recover the $150m he had handed over to them after he was warned he would die alone if they left him. But as that drama progressed CBS’s CEO Les Moonves becomes embroiled in another.

As the CBS board hatched a plan to dilute the old man’s control by merging CBS and Viacom, Moonves, a one-time daytime TV actor, was exposed by then #MeToo crusader Ronan Farrow who located six women with accusations of harassment and intimidation and published their accounts in the New Yorker.Moonves left the company in 2018 and sued for a $120m severance package. 

So Shari Redstone now controls what is now known as Paramount Global.  At least in name only, the company is still a family business in a manner akin to the world that the relatvely small National Amusements theater chain rose up in amidst the likes of far larger chains–none of whom are doing all that well, these days.  But as a controlling owner, Redstone’s cutting ties with minds like Moonves’ and his far more well-behaved lieutenants, not to mention dozens of other smart executives who ran Showtime more recently, and signing of  a dizzying series of name changes the company today is struggling mightily.  Paramount Global is well behind Netflix, Disney and Warner Discovery in the streaming wars, and has lost billions in the process.  Showtime has been reduced to a “plus one” in the latest ill-advised iteration of its streaming service’s name, and it’s raising its price at the same time.  The new leadership team at Showtime, which ran MTV Networks, is now counting on franchise brand extension to grow its business.   Not every spin-off ad reboot is guatanteed to become successful, and too much of a good thing can b truky damaging.  Anyone who saw Ant-Man this past week can vouch for that.

Rumors continue to persist that Shari is simply holding on to cash out.  Rumblings of a Sony and/or Lionsgate combination to fatten the cat for slaughter, perhaps for an Apple or Microsoft to scarf up, persist, assuming the economic downturn shows signs of reversal any time soon.   Those in charge of that firehose have a problematic summer ahead, and they’re being challenged by a culture that its detractors claim is full of the kinds of minds and attitudes that are often described as toxic.  As Syracuse professor Robert Thompson explained to Helmore”

When American television was run by white males what we saw was reflected in the things they thought interesting. It’s one of the reasons why there was a call was to diversify not only what was in front of the camera but also behind the camera”, Thompson said.

“One can certainly see how the culture of that period created so much of the misbehavior we got. Executives operating on the level of wealth, power and entitlement are in some ways living in a different world. Whatever their id tells them, they have the resources to fulfill it.”.

No one can or should defend Redstone’s personal life choices, nor those of anyone who operated in similarly panther-like manners.  The problem is, when they are replaced by less savvy minds who may indeed be better-behaving people, businesses suffer, and way better-behaving and far less well-off people suffer.  A culture obsessed with correction seems far more interested in being nice than being good.   And, as anyone who had Twitter or FTX stock knows, even the not-nice these days aren’t very good, either.

It would be almost impossible for someone like Redstone to rise to prominence today, what with the ability of reporters like Stewart and Abrams to unearth this kind of detail.   As Redstone’s obsession with what was below his waist shifted from a time when his prowess above his waist was more dominant, his company and personal wealth suffered.   And for as much as one might want to feel empathy for Shari Redstone, the book’s coda reminds that, when Sumner finally passed in August 2020, one of the few mourners allowed on-line in the COVID funeral era was indeed Shari, reportedly weeping on his coffin and mournfully cooing one of Sumner’s favorite songs, MY WAY, as it was being prepared for burial.   Shari, the one who blew out an awful lot of really smart people, and helped set the tone for the current wave of layoffs and brand mangling that challenges Paramount Global moving forward.

Seems like she has found some peace.  I kinda doubt the dozens of now-unemployed employees, or even those who merely are trying to scrape up the twenty additional bucks for year to afford to watch THE PRICE IS RIGHT online, have as much.

For as much as Sumner Redstone pursued screwing women and competitors in his lifetime, in death it’s pretty clear who the real recipients of his panther-like prowess are.  Sumner Redstone ultimately screwed us.

Until next time…




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