On Sumner Redstone, Ice Cream, and Unmet Needs
Sumner Redstone with reporters at Sun Valley in 2007.
The most accurate statement I ever heard from a corporate communications person was back in the summer of 2010, when a Viacom representative issued a statement saying that anyone who knows the company’s chairman and founder, Sumner Redstone, knows that “he’s colorful, aggressive, extremely intelligent and passionate.”
“This was just Sumner being Sumner,” Viacom’s longtime communications representative, Carl Folta, said after Redstone left a voicemail offering to “handsomely reward and protect” me if I identified my sources for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast about how he had been pressuring MTV executives to air a show about an all-girl band he was enamored with called The Electric Barbarellas. Redstone said in the message that he didn’t want to kill my sources, just talk to them.
For Redstone and Viacom, in retrospect, that seemed like a simpler time.
But, as Redstone’s companies, relationships and life unravel in the spectacularly tawdry soap opera fashion that is their only logical conclusion, it is another encounter I had with him that sticks in my mind now. It was back in 2007, after Redstone had held a wide-ranging talk with reporters at the Sun Valley conference when I spotted him watching TV alone in the lounge area of one the resort’s restaurants.
I pulled up a seat next to Redstone but before I could ask a question he turned to me and said: “Can you put CBS on? I want to watch golf.”
This seemed logical not only because Redstone controls CBS, but also because he is pretty much the network’s target demographic, though it was odd to work the TV for a guy who owns some of the most recognizable channels in the world.
After getting a remote control from one of the resort’s staffers and putting on CBS, I asked Redstone a question. He didn’t take his eyes off the TV. It was like I was no longer there.
Since he pretty much covered everything about Viacom and CBS earlier in the day — and since I already had enough material for my column — instead of asking another question I decided I’d enjoy some golf watching too. So there we sat, Redstone and I, watching some random golf tournament and not saying a word to each other (according to this link about the 2007 PGA Tour Schedule, we were watching the John Deere Classic, won apparently by Jonathan Byrd).
After a few minutes, Redstone turned to me again and said: “Can you get me some ice cream?”
I couldn’t immediately process what he said; the request seemed so weird, yet oddly appropriate (it was a sweltering July afternoon, after all). I couldn’t picture Redstone eating ice cream the way a regular human would. I couldn’t picture him looking the way Warren Buffett does when he sits down for one of his Dairy Queen sundaes, all folksy and Americana and cuddly and grandfather-ish. I imagined Redstone ate ice cream out of a 24-karat gold bowl, maniacally laughing as he watched his beloved fish take apart the carcasses of discarded Viacom and CBS executives. I thought, “This is amazing. Watching golf and sharing some ice cream with Sumner Redstone is going to make an incredible story for my column.”
I never did get Redstone that ice cream, though. By the time I found another resort staffer, another reporter had sidled up to him. Still, this story, even more than the phone call I received from him while at The Daily Beast, comes to mind every time I read the latest twists in Viacom’s corporate saga.
There’s a substantial body of evidence to support the characterization of Redstone as someone who views people as disposable and relationships as situational. In Redstone’s world, people exist solely to serve him. To him, asking me to identify my sources is no different than satisfying his need for steak by forcing it down a feeding tube or sating his sexual desires with phantom encounters. Nor, in his view, are any of those different than asking me for ice cream. They all are simply requests to satisfy his unmet needs. It could have easily been a fellow CEO or head of state or banker who sat next to him in Sun Valley and would have asked that person to put on CBS and get him ice cream.
Small wonder then that seemingly every individual still remaining in his life is motivated entirely by self-interest. Dignity and integrity left this drama long ago. How the end of Redstone’s very distinguished and extremely flawed life is playing out is not sad. It may even be deserved. Put another way, Redstone has literally and figuratively served as a father figure to many of the key players now at war, and it is not a stretch to suggest that they have absorbed and are now mimicking his treatment of people with each other. And while everyone operates with their own moral and behavioral compass, one thing’s for sure: everyone involved in this looks bad.