Taking a page from the "WWE Smackdown!" school of corporate management, Sumner Redstone, the 81-year-old chairman and CEO of Viacom, yesterday announced that the boss of Viacom's MTV Networks and the head of Viacom-owned CBS and UPN will duke it out to see who gets to replace him when he steps down in three years.
In naming MTV Networks topper Tom Freston and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves -- rather than, say, a motion picture executive -- co-presidents and chief operating officers of the country's third-largest media company, Redstone noted that the two television guys oversee units that collectively represent more than 70 percent of Viacom's cash flow. Think about that next time Entertainment Weekly tries to spin you that film is oh so much more important and glamorous than television.
Moonves and Freston each have been given additional responsibilities, including TV divisions in need of serious work.
It appears that Freston, 58, who was one of the founders of MTV in 1980 and became its head in 1987, got the good stuff, adding Paramount Pictures (which, granted, has had a lousy couple of years) and Simon & Schuster to his empire. Moonves, 54, who joined CBS in 1995 as head of entertainment programming and now oversees that network as well as UPN -- home of "WWE Smackdown!" -- got radio (which Redstone said yesterday Viacom might get rid of) and billboards.
Freston also got perpetually underperforming pay cable network Showtime, which made roughly a third the profit that HBO did last year, according to media research firm Kagan World Media. It has about 13.5 million subscribers to HBO's 25 million.
Moonves got Paramount TV, which for years has been an also-ran in the race to sell series programming to the broadcast networks for their prime-time lineups.
For the upcoming season, for instance, Paramount TV sold four new series to the six broadcast networks, trailing Warner Bros. TV, 20th Century Fox TV, Disney-owned Touchstone TV, NBC/Universal TV and even CBS Productions.
Moonves is a good fit for this gig; before joining CBS he headed Warner Bros. TV and turned it into the most prolific production house in town.
On the other hand, all he really has to do to fix Paramount TV's numbers is combine it with his CBS Productions, in much the same way NBC combined NBC Studios with Universal TV the other day when those two companies closed their merger deal. In so doing, the new series tally for the combined Paramount/CBS Productions jumps to eight for the 2004-05 TV season -- behind only Warner Bros.' 10. Presto fixo.
Asked with whom they would replace themselves now that they have bigger jobs, the slightly stiff Freston told The Reporters Who Cover Television he'd make a decision in the next couple of days. Moonves, a former actor who really knows how to work a crowd and is a TRWCT fave, quipped, "At the moment I'm not looking to replace myself," which got a laugh. Asked whether he would relinquish his annual Carnegie Hall performance at which he unveils CBS's prime-time schedule, Moonves said, "Fortunately that's not until next May. . . . I don't know if I will do [the presentation] again, although I have a great time doing it."
Redstone's announcement that he will give up the CEO title within three years coincided with the surprise-but-not-really announcement that Viacom President and Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin has resigned from the post he's held since 2000.
"It should be obvious that Tom and Les are the leading candidates for my job," Redstone said during a phoner with reporters yesterday morning. He noted that a succession plan had been under development for weeks and that when Karmazin was still around, he, too, was among the candidates. But now he's not.
"On a personal note, Les and Tom are two of my favorite people," Karmazin told reporters.
"You may not think that's important . . . but Les and Tom are friends and I am their friend."
Karmazin also noted -- three or four times during the phoner -- that he frequently goes out socially with Moonves and Freston.
"These guys are really friends; we all go out together socially, out to dinner together. You may not think that's important," Karmazin said.
Redstone and Karmazin did not frequently go out together socially; they were famous for not getting along, though it was thought they'd agreed to try to make the marriage work when the Viacom board expressed concern over their strained relationship and the company then signed Karmazin to a three-year pact last year.
Redstone kept insisting yesterday that, in Sumnerland, he and Karmazin are like two peas in a pod, that he is "disappointed" in Karmazin's resignation because "I like Mel" and that while "Mel was frustrated about something, I hope it wasn't about me because I have no issues with him." (Maybe Karmazin, who tried unsuccessfully to get the CEO gig when Viacom bought CBS in May 2000, was frustrated because in the new succession plan he was just one of the candidates to replace Redstone.)