Sumner's Version
Viacom's Redstone battled cable companies to build media powerhous
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Entertainment is Western civilization's raison d'être. We devote more hours to watching TV, movies, renting videos and other pass-times, than we do to working. But entertainment is also big business.

In this era of media convergence, public interest in the titans who control the growing multi-media conglomerates is high. And few have amassed the power and wealth of Sumner Redstone, CEO, of Viacom Inc., whose holdings include CBS, Blockbuster, and Paramount Pictures, theme parks and thousands of movie screens.

In his autobiography, A Passion to Win, Restone talks of his humble origins as an oppressed Bostonian Jew, who faced bullying from Irish toughs, studied his way into a Harvard scholarship and later built the "small theater chain," and night-clubs he inherited, into a huge media empire.

Redstone, joined the family business after a successful stint as a federal anti-trust lawyer, an experience that would help him in the entertainment world as he took on the cable monopolies that dragged their feet in carrying Viacom channels. In these segments - among the book's best-Redstone demonstrates the dangers to competition of cable monopolies getting involved in content production.

Redstone has numerous strengths, but the one that took his family business -- National Amusements -- to the next level was his ability to recognize, negotiate and integrate acquisitions into his empire, notably Viacom, Paramount and later CBS.

Redstone does not have a high profile in Canada, mostly because Viacom's crown jewel MTV is not available here due to CRTC restrictions. But there is no mistaking the music video station's influence.

MTV's signal is broadcast into 353 million homes in dozens of countries spanning the globe. That gives it massive marketing clout through the videos it broadcasts, and the fashions, products, and film clips displayed on its programming.

In A passion to Win, written "with" professional writer Peter Knobler, Redstone comes off as a talented, competitive, hard working, ruthless, vindictive and driven empire builder. His desire to win- the book's theme - is so all-consuming, that decades later, Redstone recalls which word he misspelled to lose a childhood spelling bee, and still labels a Harvard Law School professor who had the audacity to give him a D, as a "known drunk."

If the biographer's biggest danger is falling in love with his subject, this applies doubly to the autobiographer, and Redstone steps repeatedly into this trap. A Passion to Win is filled with stories about how he made bright moves, very bright moves, and extremely bright moves.

This shortcoming is exacerbated by the fact that the book was published by Simon & Schuster -- a company Redstone controls - and the work at times comes off at times as something of a PR piece. Many interesting details are cut, or left out.

Barely a paragraph is devoted to his wife of several decades, who Redstone is in the process of divorcing, and his father's role after Redstone joined the family business is downplayed. Redstone's employees come off as a bunch of faceless drones, and although Redstone describes them as a team, you get the feeling they are all on a short leash.

Redstone is a workaholic who barely conceals his contempt for employees that can't keep up with him. The book is filled with late night negotiating sessions and 7:00 o'clock Sunday-morning telephone calls to his manager's homes.

As you would expect from someone who built a multi-billion dollar empire, Redstone admits few mistakes. In one hilarious sequence, he implies that one error he did make was not firing a non-performing CEO of Viacom's Blockbuster division earlier, even though it is clear that Redstone himself was rubber-stamping the division's key moves.

But Redstone's lack of reliability as a narrator is so blatant, the experienced reader quickly sees that to get the most out of the book, one has to read through the lines.

For example Redstone at one point admonishes Paramount CEO Martin Davis - which Viacom had been for years negotiating to take over - for stalling negotiations in order to hang on to power. But we later find out that Viacom was only offering $63 per Paramount share, a price that Redstone would later boost to $107, after a bidding war with Barry Diller's QVC.

Now in his 70s Redstone, shows no signs of retiring any time soon, and for those in small media world, this book conveys a good picture of a man who casts a long shadow over it. Despite its shortcomings, A Passion to Win is also a useful and entertaining read in its own right, and the segments on Redstone's low-ball negotiation tactics alone, will more than pay the cover price.

 

A Passion to Win
By Sumner Redstone, with Peter Knobler, Simon & Schuster, 322 pp., $39.50

 

Peter Diekmeyer is a Montreal-based business writer. He can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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