Yes, we're busily ushering in the new guard of media moguls, as we saw at Viacom last week. But let's not overlook a key fact: that the old guard is still very much with us.
So before we usher Viacom's Sumner Redstone and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch offstage, let's see what we can learn from the way they've built and run their giant media conglomerates.
No matter what they may say about retiring, these guys aren't going away anytime soon -- provided that they stay healthy. Besides, they're lots more fun to watch than the new guard is likely to be. That's because they'll do what their gut tells them, no matter how outrageous that may seem, rather than what Wall Street tells them. That's how you behave when you consider yourself the owner and a builder, as both Redstone and Murdoch do.
On the surface, these two guys are the ultimate odd couple, their shared mogulhood and advanced years notwithstanding. Murdoch, 73, is staunchly conservative; Redstone, 81, is outspokenly liberal. Murdoch isn't shy about using his empire to promote his personal agenda and influence the terms of political debate, like the press lords of old; Redstone, as a manager, has been mostly apolitical. Murdoch has made huge bets on satellite TV, while Redstone has focused largely on content.
But on a primal level, these guys are peas in a pod. Consider, for starters, the dynastic imperative. Both Murdoch and Redstone inherited control of smallish family companies and are obsessed with keeping family control over what are now enormous companies.
Both Viacom and News have stock structures that give their controlling families voting stakes far in excess of their economic stakes. This is fairly common in smallish media firms, such as the New York Times Co. or my employer, The Washington Post Co. But it's rarely seen in giant corporations.
Murdoch has anointed his son, Lachlan, to control News after he steps down. This set off the predictable uproar -- but Murdoch didn't care. Redstone seems to be planning a similar role at Viacom for his daughter, Shari. When and if the uproar starts, Redstone won't care, either.
Both guys got where they are by making giant bets based primarily on instinct and often motivated at least as much by ego and competitive juices as by money.
Murdoch, who started with two small newspapers in Adelaide, Australia, 50 years ago, has transformed that modest outfit into the world's most truly global media empire despite several near-death experiences of the financial variety. Redstone, who became a mini-mogul in 1967 by taking control of his family's small theater chain, bet the farm in 1987 to buy Viacom, which CBS had been forced to unload for antitrust reasons. He put Viacom stock in the tank by paying seemingly outrageous prices for Paramount and Blockbuster six years later. Now, Viacom owns CBS, Paramount, MTV and a zillion other cable channels and a zillion and a half radio stations.
What's surprising, at least to me, is that the buy-it-now-and-figure-out-how-to-run-it-later strategy has actually worked out reasonably well for long-term, patient shareholders. Tap the right keys on a Bloomberg machine, as I did last week with assistance from my Post colleague Richard Drezen, and a fascinating pattern emerges. You discover that over long periods, News and Viacom have generally outperformed both U.S. media stocks as a group and the U.S. stock market as a whole. But they've had plenty of bad stretches -- such as the one Viacom's in now.
Imperial chief executives and entrenched family control go against the current fashion on Wall Street. But neither Redstone nor Murdoch seems to care very much about being untrendy. Why should they? Our final lesson, courtesy of Mel Brooks: It's good to be the king -- but it's even better to be the emperor.
One Cheer for Schwab
There's good news on the mutual fund supermarket front: Schwab, which I criticized recently for the way it dealt with the Selected American Shares mutual fund, has seen the light. At least part of it.
You may recall that Selected American has voluntarily created a new, lower-cost D share class for investors who own stock directly, while converting existing, now-higher-cost shares to S (for supermarket) shares. Schwab had ruled that its investors couldn't buy S shares (except for reinvesting dividends and capital gains).
I thought this infringed on customer choice: Let investors choose if they want to pay Schwab a one-time transaction fee to buy lower-annual-cost D shares (minimum investment: $10,000), or let them continue to pay no fee to buy higher-cost S shares.
Schwab has now decided to let existing Selected American shareholders buy additional S shares. A good start. Now, if it decides to let new Selected American investors buy S shares, it will be where the Fidelity supermarket is: the right place.
Sloan is Newsweek's Wall Street editor. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.