Redstone Lite


By Sumner Redstone with Peter Knobler

Simon & Schuster -- 322pp -- $26

In the insular media worlds of New York and Hollywood, executives with outsize egos have always prided themselves on being tough, a trait they deem necessary to capture the eyes and ears of the public. If there was ever any doubt that Viacom (VIA ) Chairman Sumner M. Redstone is the toughest and most unapologetic of the lot, he reminds us on page after page of his new autobiography, A Passion to Win. Redstone recounts his 50-year career, during which he deftly struck deals, filed lawsuits, filed more lawsuits, and hired (and fired) executives. He rose from head of an obscure drive-in movie theater business to the helm of one of the most valuable media companies in the world.

Still, even if many of his recollections are self-serving, taken all together they offer an interesting window on the evolution of a sprawling modern media company. In the 1950s, Harvard Law School grad Redstone took over his father's theater business and made a name for himself suing the Hollywood studios over their practice of not letting exhibitors see movies before bidding for them. After expanding his company into one of the largest theater chains in the country, Redstone started his empire-building in earnest by acquiring TV giant Viacom in 1987. From there, he gobbled up Paramount and eventually CBS to create what is today a media juggernaut that includes such brands as MTV, Nickelodeon, UPN, Showtime, and publisher Simon & Schuster. (Undeterred by the appearance that he might be getting special treatment, Redstone unabashedly chose S&S to publish this book.)

A Passion to Win is a quick read but begs for more behind-the-scenes illumination of Redstone's much discussed deals. Lacking that, it's the stinging opinions he offers about fellow executives that are the book's highlight. Redstone makes no secret of his contempt for Republic Industries CEO H. Wayne Huizenga, who, Redstone says, wrongly accused him of cooking the books at Blockbuster Entertainment after Viacom bought that company in 1994. (He also criticizes a 1997 BusinessWeek cover story that questioned his management of Viacom and Blockbuster.) Of former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi, whom he fired in 1996, he writes: "He has many talents, just not those that are required to be CEO." Referring to the "Diller Sizzle," Redstone implies that Barry Diller, who today is CEO of USA Networks Inc., is somehow lacking in substance. Diller, of course, went head-to-head with Redstone back in 1993, when, as chief of the QVC Network, he made a rival bid for Paramount. Redstone prevailed.

Redstone turned 78 in May, and while he gives no indication that he will step aside soon, you would think a man of his age and experience could offer more introspection about his life, family, and work. It's not there, and that leaves the reader wondering who that man is behind the tough-guy persona.

By Tom Lowry

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