What Does The Viacom Soap Opera Mean For The Future Of The Company?


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I have had a variety of writing jobs over the years, some of them I am proud to have done, others not so much. A couple different times, in fact, I have ended up working for one of those ridiculous gossip sites, the kind that I loathe, that focus on Kardashians and Hiltons and the like, and generally trade in celebrity misery.

Now, I’m not going to say I was better than the jobs, because I needed them at the time and was happy for the work, but I wasn’t so happy that I wrote under my own name. No, I convinced my editors to let me write under a pseudonym because I didn’t want my name associated with the garbage I was writing to pay the rent. Sue me. I think the gossip business is ridiculous and is slowly but surely poisoning our society. Or haven’t you noticed that our new version of celebrity has given us a reality TV star as the presidential nominee of a major political party?

I bring this up because, while my feelings about that side of the business are clear, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good public soap opera when I see one.

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I speak, of course, of this Viacom-Sumner Redstone lawsuit, which is not only endlessly fascinating, but also the kind of thing that would work very well on one of those afternoon TV shows my late Mema used to refer to as her “stories.”

If you’re not paying attention — and odds are, you’re not — you’re missing out on one of the most bizarre, entertaining, disturbing, hilarious and all around mystifying case I’ve ever seen. I mean, if it were a movie, or a TV show, you wouldn’t believe it, and yet here it is.

In a nutshell, Viacom is trying to prove that Sumner Redstone is no longer competent to make his own decisions, and he is fighting back through proxies, led by his daughter, Shari, who previously ousted the two longtime companions he had, Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland, who were taking care of him and supposedly acting in his best interests — even though Herzer was carrying on with another man — while also keeping their eyes on a substantial inheritance he had promised and then withdrawn, and is now working with/for/in spite of her dad (depending on whom you believe) to get rid of five members of Viacom’s board of directors and replace them with people who will be loyal to her and prevent the company from selling its 49 percent stake in Paramount Pictures, while Redstone himself, all of 93 years old and looking more decrepit than the Crypt Keeper, hasn’t appeared in public in over a year to refute any of the charges that he no longer has the capacity to make any decisions for himself, the company’s board has agreed to pay the legal and PR bills for current (though, if Shari has her way, soon-to-be-former) CEO Philippe Dauman, who continues to fight for his role at both the company and in the Redstone family trust, which owns 80 percent of theater chain National Amusements, which in turn controls 80 percent of the voting shares in Viacom and CBS, which is still run by Les Moonves, who appears to be safe in his role running CBS no matter what happens, unlike Dauman, under whose leadership the past two years Viacom’s stock has dropped nearly 50 percent, and even more on Friday, thanks to the news that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 has fared poorly at the box office and, oh yes, this lawsuit continues, thus throwing everything into total and complete confusion.

Phew! Did you get all that? I certainly hope so, because I would hate to have written the longest sentence of my entire life for nothing.

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Now, this is not to say that this whole thing is frivolous, because it most certainly is not. In fact, it’s rather important to the industry how this whole thing shakes out, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but it’s incredible to me how this has all occurred in the first place and how badly it has gotten out of hand. If you doubt it, go ahead and try to wade through that mess I wrote two paragraphs previous. I’m not even sure I follow it, and I wrote the damn thing.

Why is all this important? Well, it has to do with the dying cable industry and billions of dollars, so that’s slightly more than a trifle. Shari Redstone wants to get rid of Dauman and control the family trust which is made up of members of the Redstone clan — many of whom are at complete and total odds with each other — as well as independent members, of which Dauman is fighting to remain. That voting block of the trust — heretofore controlled totally by Sumner Redstone himself — oversees both companies, which used to be one until they were split by Redstone in 2005.

If Redstone is judged competent, it’s all moot, because his word goes. If he’s not, then it affects CBS — again, Moonves appears safe — as well as all the cable networks owned by Viacom, including MTV, Central, Nickelodeon and BET, all of which are hemorrhaging viewers, not to mention Paramount Pictures, which will either be sold (if Dauman stays) or won’t be (if he goes), and if it’s not, studio topper Brad Grey could be the next one out the door. Considering the disappointing run the Mountain has had at the box office over the last few years (just one billion dollar year of domestic BO since 2012), new leadership might very well want to make a change.

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It’s possible that the trust would want to merge Viacom back with CBS, but there’s no guarantee Moonves would want to run that behemoth, especially in light of the droves of consumers cutting the cord and moving fully to digital and streaming. Still, some analysts feel this will be the best thing for the company, so Moonves might not have a choice in the matter. Either way, a Delaware court is going to hear arguments about all this on Wednesday, so hopefully we’ll start to get some definitive answers sooner than later.

In the end, this is a power game, and nothing more. It’s about money and position and who controls what and what they do with that control. The fates of several companies are at stake, but it’s not entirely clear what would happen to those companies should one side or the other actually emerge victorious, which is part of what makes it so fascinating in the first place.

You can’t make this up. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Get David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco, Shonda Rhimes and Robert and Michelle King in a room together and even they couldn’t come up with it. I’m telling you, people waste so much time on gossip and salacious celebrity nonsense, when stuff like this is so much more fun.

ProfilePic adjusted 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.