The family feud at Viacom.

Inside the big picture show.
Aug. 2 2007 3:34 PM

Viacom Family Feud

Are Sumner Redstone and his daughter heading into King Lear territory?

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Ripeness Is All: If we read the leaves swirling around in the teapot correctly, it seems likely that the tempest between Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shari, is going to blow over.

In recent weeks, the 84-year-old father and 53-year-old daughter have been like Lear and Cordelia in Act 1. But after sending Forbes magazine a snarling letter earlier this month asserting that Shari had made "little or no contribution" to his empire, Sumner has now said in a Business Week interview that he loves daughter and is concerned about her welfare.

We'll give him the benefit of the doubt. But by now, maybe the fight has also kicked up too much press. It cast an unflattering light on Viacom's governance practices and seemed to create a feeling that Redstone might soon be found wandering the moors and ranting at the wind. So, perhaps he'll let Shari buy control of her precious theater chain and call it a day.

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Shari is an interesting character. The Los Angeles Times ran a flattering profile earlier this week. It portrayed her as a devoted mother and the maker of a very good stuffed cabbage, which any cook knows can be rather labor intensive. "She's unaffected … and she doesn't lust after power," said Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons.

Maybe she doesn't lust, but recent events suggest she might have acquired a little taste for power nonetheless. Yes, she was called into Viacom at her father's behest, but once in, she seems to have become intent on actually doing her job. And she has answered Sumner's volleys with vigor. "I love the fact that Shari has been able to position herself as self-effacing," says a former Viacom insider. "She's the opposite of that."

Another Viacom veteran who's a fan of Shari's says she's like Dad—smart, hardworking, and opinionated. Still, this person adds, "taking on a man who has all the stock" may not be all that smart. "I could argue, 'You're right, Shari—the board isn't really independent,' " this observer says. "There ain't nothing you can do. If he wants to make his salary $20 million a year, there ain't shit you can do."

As the other former associate puts it, "She can't kill him. That's God's job."

Both these veterans, who are still in touch with Sumner, say the fact that's he's feuding with his daughter—as well as his son—doesn't mean he's any crazier than he was before. "I'm sure he's half a step slower," says one. "But you're not talking about a guy who's lost his faculties. He's not erratic. He's not a guy who says A in the morning and B in the afternoon."

In fact, this observer thinks the dust-up is probably something of a tonic to the old man. "This is like giving him a 3-inch Porterhouse steak and an ice-cold cold beer," he says. "He's got his name back in the papers. … What could be better?"

The topic of Sumner and Shari wasn't addressed when Viacom delivered its earnings news this morning, but CEO Phillipe Dauman scoffed at recent reports that the DreamWorks team might be unhappy. Noting that DreamWorks has been experiencing the best year in its history, he said Steven Spielberg is "happily engaged" in directing Indiana Jones 4, adding, "I think we'll continue to make him happy." In fact, there is much happiness to go around. "We are happy to have [Spielberg] as the leading star in our firmament," Daumann said. And Paramount is happy to have a firmament, he continued, citing relationships that include Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese, and J.J. Abrams. (link)