Viacom Lessons


Tom Freston is one of the best managers of all time. Not only did he oversee the spectacular growth at MTV Networks, he left his charges alone, they made the decisions, he was the cheerleader, the advisor, but they were empowered. MTV ruled the music business, its programmer was the most powerful person in the industry, threw off boatloads of cash and was the cultural denominator for not only the nation, but the world. Furthermore, Freston was ahead of his viewers. Despite watchers clamoring for more clips, Tom said MTV was never gonna air videos 24/7 anymore, since they’d become an on demand item on the web, which they most certainly have, wait for a video on cable while it’s available on demand on YouTube? And in a world where there’s almost never a second act, where Walter Yetnikoff and Tommy Mottola and Donnie Ienner lose their jobs and disappear, Freston has been the enabler of Vice, which is not only cool, but burgeoning, about to take over youth news by being edgy and accurate, delivering what you really want to see, as opposed to providing bland talking heads no one believes in. If Freston was still CEO, Viacom would not be in this snit, he would have pivoted, he would have changed, because in media he not busy being born is busy dying. This is the guy who thought MySpace was overpriced and passed and lost his job because he didn’t get on the bandwagon and didn’t lie about corporate projections. Then a manager, Philippe Dauman, came in and the whole thing went to pot, as Dauman was overpaid in the process. We’ve seen this movie many times before. Doug Morris was forced out at Warner and then built Universal. Few bands survive the loss of their front man. Don’t focus on the bottom line, focus on the TALENT!


Sumner Redstone was thinking with the little head. All these execs do, and so do the athletes. The most powerful people are oftentimes the spouses and girlfriends. Sex is biology, everybody is vulnerable, the person on the pedestal is driven by the same things you and me are.


I don’t know whether Sumner Redstone is capable or not, but I do know he thought he’d live forever, famously said so, and really didn’t have a proper succession plan in place. Your time will be done, no matter how powerful you are today. Train your successors, who might do a better job than you. That’s right, Lucian Grainge runs Universal better than Doug Morris did. Because not only does he know the creative side, he’s aware of tech and the changing landscape and he is leveraging his power at Universal for change, like trying to bring Japan into the twenty first century in terms of music formats. Sure, Doug Morris survives at Sony, he’s a great music executive, don’t get me wrong. But Morris was replaceable and Sony is just a record company with hits, Universal is so much more.


Paramount, Dauman wanted to sell half to make the stock jump. But once you start selling that which got you to the prom that still has asset value, you’re in terminal decline. Sure, Paramount is presently moribund, but that’s fixable with a few hits. Shuffle the deck, change the systems, nothing is preventing Paramount from succeeding, it is not an institutional problem. It’d be like selling your car to make rent and then being unable to get to work. Think to the future, not the past.


Sumner split Viacom in two, creating CBS and Viacom. Turns out that Les Moonves is not only a programming whiz, but a financial one too, he rides herd over Wall Street. But today it would be better if the two were together, and because of gross differences in stock price they may not be able to be reunited. So the loss is palpable. Never mind that Moonves would be a better manager of Viacom’s assets than Dauman. Building an enterprise is one thing, keeping it running is another. I give Sumner credit for sticking by his people, it’s just that with Dauman he picked the wrong person.


Sumner legendarily promoted from within, but the fact that Tom Dooley was given the reins shows that Shari Redstone and her handlers are clueless. This is repeating the formula. They need a creative guy, not someone who can make the trains run on time. You don’t need to calm the waters, you need a great leap forward. At least Steve Jobs gave Tim Cook responsibilities before his death, Cook was experienced. But Cook is everything that’s wrong with Apple, he can make the trains run on time but he can’t lay new track, everybody’s going where he is now, but will they in the future, of course not!


There’s a fiction that if we expose the heinous activities of the rich, they’ll be shamed into doing the right thing. But not only was Dauman one of America’s highest paid execs before the turmoil, he insisted on costing the company money to fight for his failed vision before he settled and walked away with a stratospheric payment. You and me would be embarrassed, but not this prick. Enough is never enough. And if you think this guy is gonna resurface, you’re a fan of Mickey Schulhof and Michael Fuchs.


No one wants an extended legal fight. You just shoot your arrows and wait for a few decisions to go your way and then settle. The amazing thing is how those with a losing hand take so long to realize this, like Dauman, like Kesha. If you’re gonna fight in court, you’d better be able to win, rulings have to go your way or don’t even start. And never forget, when it comes to high profile cases, you’ll always find an attorney to take them on, lawyers like the glory too, everything’s show business today.


Not MTV or Nickelodeon. The past is paved with enterprises that have gone under, you’ve got to constantly adjust and prepare for the future.


MTV fired its audience, not its employees. Yup, the beloved veejays, they were all canned, they were too old, MTV had a young demo it wanted to maintain. “Rolling Stone” was the bible of the baby boomers, it’s irrelevant to their children. He who grays with his audience is destined for irrelevancy.


On a limited cable system, Viacom was a giant. When distribution moved online, not only did Viacom miss the boat, no one goes to, it lost its monopoly.

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