The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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When will Viacom pull the plug on Sumner Redstone?

April 30, 2009 | 12:34 pm

Sumnerredstone Our sharp new Company Town columnist Joe Flint was too polite to say it out loud, but judging from Flint's reportage on Sumner Redstone's latest buffoonish public performance -- during an interview with famed softball questioner Larry King at the Milken Institute Global Conference -- you'd have to wonder how much longer Viacom insiders can put off a stockholders' revolt. I know that if I'd been a stockholder on hand, watching Redstone once again embarrass himself, I'd be putting in a sell call as fast as I could.

Most of the media treated Redstone's performance as fodder for jokes -- Flint described Redstone's interaction with King as being like a rehearsal "for a summer tour of the Catskills." But Flint also gently skewered Redstone for having the chutzpah to claim that at Viacom, he treats "everyone like a member of my family," with Flint noting that Redstone's family values are somewhat in question, considering that he's just ended another marriage, doesn't speak to his son, Brent, and seems to treat his daughter, Shari, more like a feared business rival than a beloved offspring. 

Redstone, as always, repeated his deluded claim that he doesn't plan to die -- which for stockholders of the troubled company must seem more like a threat than a promise. But surely the most embarrassing moment of the whole affair came when, during a Q&A session with the audience, Redstone asked several female questioners if they were married or not, as if he thought he might actually be on "The Dating Game."

It's a lucky thing that in Hollywood most media companies are run like private fiefdoms instead of actual businesses. If Viacom were a troubled bank, car company or newspaper, Redstone would be long gone. At 85, Redstone is so out of touch that he still doesn't use e-mail or understand how to navigate Facebook or MySpace, saying, "I have people that do that stuff for me." Of course, that's what the chieftains of the record industry used to say about surfing the Internet, even after Napster and illegal downloading sent their business tumbling into the Dumpster.  

I worry that Hollywood is perhaps a little overwhelmed by its preoccupation with new technology, especially judging from the legions of screenwriters who've complained about studio executives being unable to follow the simplest storyline in pitch meetings because they were so intently focused on toggling their Crackberries. Of course, if the pitch meeting was at Paramount, the execs would have a good excuse -- maybe they're the people reading Redstone's e-mail for him.  

But in a showbiz world that is always focused on the future, Viacom no longer has the luxury of having a czar who lives in the past, acting like an aging member of the Rat Pack, ogling showgirls at a Vegas casino. With Redstone still in charge, it's no wonder Viacom seems to taking two steps back every time it tries to put its best foot forward.

Photo of Sumner Redstone by Chris Pizzello / Associated Press