The King of Content: Sumner Redstone's Battle for Viacom, CBS, and Everlasting Control of His Media Empire
July 31, 2018
Keach Hagey's biography of Sumner Redstone is chockfull of riveting personal, family, and corporate drama, and a lens into how the traditional media industry is faring in an increasingly digital world.
Last night, Stephen Colbert delivered a monologue about his boss, Les Moonves, being the latest person added to the #metoo movement's roster of men accused of sexual misconduct. His declaration that "Accountability is meaningless unless it's for everybody" was, I think, a much needed moment of clarity in a cacophonous and often confusing media landscape. "Everybody believes in accountability until it's their guy," he said. And Moonves, he stated bluntly, is his guy—gave him the job hosting the Late Show and the support he needed to find his way, to find his legs and his voice, doing it. He enjoys working for him. But, still, said Colbert, "Whether it's the leader of a network, or the leader of the free world," people must be held accountable.
The allegations against Moonves are a bombshell dropped into an already brewing legal battle between CBS and its parent company, National Amusements, whose president Shari Redstone is attempting to remerge CBS and Viacom, which were split in 2005. (Redstone is vice-chairman of both CBS Corporation and Viacom.) It all makes for a compelling media drama, but it is nowhere near the drama contained in the backstory of National Amusements itself, a story told in Keach Hagey's brilliant biography of Sumner Redstone, The King of Content.
With a business birthed in bootlegging during prohibition and the Boston numbers racket, his father Mickey Redstone went legit (though, with financial backing still rooted in the underworld) when he opened The Sunrise Auto Theatre, which "became the cornerstone of a chain of drive-in theaters that would come to dominate the Northeast," and would come, in time, to be called National Amusements, Inc.—a name that matched its outsized ambitions. To say that the family company met those ambitions would be an understatement. Sumner Redstone, who began as a soda jerk at Sunrise drive-in, would build National Amusements into one of the world's largest media empires.
Today, as the majority owner of the family theater chain National Amusements, he controls roughly 80 percent of the voting shares of both Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., a $36 billion media empire encompassing MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodean, BET, VH1, Paramount Pictures, CBS, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, and the Showcase Cinemas and Cinema de Lux movie chains.
The tale of Sumner Redstone's family business, however, is one filled with family strife, and so many lawsuits flying back and forth between family members that an attempt to keep count of them all seems futile. The family drama is matched in intensity by the corporate battles he fought and a turbulent love life. It is a life lived so fully, and so ferociously, and with such impact on the culture we consume, that it boggles the mind. Consider just this brief tidbit from the book's Prologue:
Most famously, he had survived a hotel fire by hanging out a window while flames singed his wrist to the bone, an experience that left him with a gnarled claw for a hand, burns over 45 percent of his body, and a steely resolve to never be beaten at anything.
In addition to being a great biography, The King of Content is also a great look into how traditional media is faring in an increasingly digital world. As Hagey writes: "The credo that [Redstone] coined and repeated for decades—'content is king'—turned out to be truer in the digital world than he could have ever guessed." But things change, and the control Redstone insisted on having may have hamstrung the ability of the company to change with it. The move by Shari Redstone to merge CBS and Viacom is, in fact, a strategic decision that would undo one of her father's final corporate maneuvers, one that would also install Les Moonves in the position he still holds today, from which he has effectively declared war on what CBS leadership has called "a corporate coup."
There is one thing that we all must know needs changing by now, which brings us back to Shari Redstone, who had to do battle with her own father to gain control of the family company. As Hagey writes:
Women own less than 7 percent of the television stations in the United States, despite decades of federal regulations attempting to increase diversity among station owners. Other parts of the media are so devoid of female ownership for it not to even be a topic of discussion. From this fundamental imbalance flows the litany of sad, stale facts of women's seemingly permanent junior role in the business of telling the world's stories: they are only on camera and TV news about a third of the time, only write about a third of the newspaper stories, only make up 6 percent of film directors.
And then, about a year into Shari's reign, the dam broke. The New York Times and New Yorker uncovered decades of Harvey Weinstein's sexual abuse and harassment of women, opening a torrent of allegations against other men in the entertainment industry and beyond. No one knows what Hollywood will look like after this flood, but there will certainly be more women in charge. After seeing the brutality and misogyny of the media industry exposed, is it any wonder that a women had to ferociously fight her way to power within it?
A new name has been added to that torrent of allegations. We don't know what will happen next, but I know who I'll turn to for updates on the story—Keach Hagey. Because as we've seen throughout the last year, as we've seen throughout our history as a nation, it is the press, and the work of great reporters like her (and like Ronan Farrow who broke both the Weinstein and the Moonves story), that is best able to hold people in powerful positions accountable.
If you're interested in the backstory of the company that owns CBS, or you're just interested in a riveting drama worthy of the cinemas and movie studios it owns, throw your hat in the ring for a copy of The King of Content.
We have 20 copies available.