As Paramount Global prepares to report quarterly earnings Thursday, with CEO Bob Bakish presiding and Shari Redstone happily ensconced as non-executive chair, a new book is bringing forth some interesting (and at times lurid) revelations about the company’s tortuous journey.
Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, a tale of sex, lies, family drama and boardroom backstabbing, is out this week and is already one of Amazon’s top sellers. Co-authors and New York Times colleagues James Stewart and Rachel Abrams gleefully expand on what has already been known about the epic dysfunction that swirled around late patriarch Sumner Redstone. As their account emphasizes, the mercurial loyalties, sexual obsessions and physical and mental decline of the company’s founder fomented chaos at the former Viacom and CBS Corp. Part salacious soap opera, part business book/legal chronicle, it charts the downward spiral of Sumner as well as the downfall of Les Moonves, the media titan whose allies and enablers propped him up until the last minute.
Harvey Weinstein’s public rousting and the resulting momentum for the #MeToo movement subjected Moonves and many others to scrutiny, empowering women to come forward. But the deluge of accusations of harassment and worse from years in the past was not, in the end, what brought down Moonves. Rather, it was his long-running attempt at a cover-up by seeking to buy the silence of one actress with a job, and lying to the board about it. If he was willing to do that, directors wondered, what else might he be capable of? Despite the brazen conduct, which even made Moonves himself physically sick, he still almost walked away with $120 million in severance payment.
Among the most cringey moments: An LAPD police captain who had worked for Moonves at CBS handing over a police report by an alleged Moonves victim to executives at the company, who showed it to the former CEO. That stunning sequence was revealed last year in a settlement with the New York Attorney General, but there are more details in the book.
A geriatric Sumner Redstone trying to steal his grandson Brandon Korff’s dates, including once at the MTV Video Music Awards, is also icky — and fateful. It led Korff to hire matchmaker Patti Stanger to find his grandfather a companion. That match turned out to be Sydney Holland, who, with another Sumner girlfriend, Manuel Herzer, wound up with a combined $150 million of the mogul’s wealth before eventually being exiled.
The ouster of Holland and Herzer was when Shari Redstone, eminently empathetic and reasonable in this telling, finally attains the trust and love of her hyper-critical father. But the board of CBS, which had listened to Sumner insult and belittle Shari for years, proved harder to convince as she ascended so they missed opportunities to listen to her business advice, which was usually pretty logical. It included removing former Viacom CEO Phillipe Dauman, whose lack of vision appeared to be grounding the company; putting Viacom and CBS back together again at a time when scale was needed; and probing allegations against Moonves beyond just asking him if anything had happened. (He’d always maintained that nothing had.)
Dauman, long Sumner’s surrogate son, was dethroned after he started shopping as much as 49% of Paramount Pictures, the original jewel in the corporate crown. After two unsuccessful attempts, Viacom and CBS finally merge in 2019 at the end of the book’s narrative. The combination of the companies has been a generally positive one, with a relatively successful Bakish at the helm. Sumner Redstone died in 2020 at age 97.
The book is set against a backdrop of all kinds of filed and threatened lawsuits, which the authors mine for much of their best original material. The first two-thirds of the book chronicles the escapades of Sumner, punctuated by birthday celebrations – at 90, 91 and 92 – where the guest list and tone vary dramatically depending on his health and who’s in his orbit at the moment. (“Needless to say, Dauman wasn’t invited to Sumner’s 93rd birthday,” the authors dryly report.)
Corporate governance issues lurk. As Sumner Redstone’s dementia and disability set in, it takes the board years to finally yank his rich annual salary as chairman when he’s unable to work. Close to the 200-page mark, the patriarch disappears from the narrative and the corporate story really gets under way with a battle for control of the companies and the unraveling of Moonves.
Here are a few selections, courtesy of publisher Penguin Press:
Shari Redstone was trying to fire Dauman after Comedy Central lost stars Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert, among other missteps:
“Exasperated, Shari finally asked Dauman alone to her recently renovated apartment at the Pierre. She gave him a tour and ordered drinks and canapés before settling in the study overlooking Central Park. She’d been such a gracious host, he was unprepared for what came next: “You and I both know you’re completely unsuited to be chief executive of Viacom,” Shari said, laying her cards on the table.
“I respectfully disagree,” Dauman answered. He realized she was asking him to resign as chief executive. Someday he’d step aside, he told her, but now wasn’t the right time. The company was at an “inflection point” and needed continuity of leadership.
An intoxicated Moonves agonized over his decision with allies on the CBS board to wrest voting control from the Redstones in a battle move set for the next morning:
By now Moonves must have been far beyond his third vodka of the evening. In his last text of the day, to [communications chief Gil] Schwartz at 10:36 p.m., he was all but incoherent: “We need to lay their clowns think early on we are no hardship Barr no and will ill them handcuffs off. If they want to bring it n watch out. We will decimate. Old Sara we haven’t done anything but party with you. Now we will kill Scarw her big. All of them scare them. I am going to prevent this public bulls hit rightbaway. And let’s go after them head on NOW.”
Moonves’ allies were later incredulous that he pursued the suit:
The directors would never have agreed to bring the suit had they known the issues lurking in Moonves’s past. Now that they knew, there was collective disbelief that Moonves had permitted the suit to go forward. What had he been thinking? Various directors speculated, but all they could come up with was that his powers of denial must have been extraordinary.
Manager Marv Dauer pressed Moonves to find work for Bobbie Phillips, an actress who said Moonves had assaulted her:
Shari and Klieger’s letter pushing for a more thorough investigation of Moonves obviously made Bobbie Phillips’s ongoing silence all the more important. Since the previous December, when Dauer had first contacted him, nearly all their interactions had been initiated by Dauer. But now Moonves reached out to Dauer, suggesting they meet again at Art’s Delicatessen in Studio City on Friday, July 13. “See you then,” Dauer responded. At their lunch Moonves reiterated that his sexual encounter with Phillips had been consensual—“I was never a predator, I was a player” was how he put it. But he again poured on the remorse, saying he wanted to make amends and was still looking for a part for Phillips.
“Well, it’s been eight months and you haven’t gotten her anything,” Dauer responded. “She’s been very patient, and she’d like something to happen.” He added, “She’s getting angry.” The following week Moonves called Peter Golden, the head of casting, to see if there was anything shooting in Toronto, because there was an actress there he wanted Golden to consider. At first Golden said no, but then he realized Blood & Treasure was casting in Toronto and much of it was being shot in Montreal. “Who’s the actress?” Golden asked Moonves. “Bobbie Phillips,” Moonves answered, a name that, so far as Golden was concerned, came out of the blue. Moonves confided in Golden that he was facing a #MeToo situation. (Moonves said that Golden “understood this was a woman who was potentially making an accusation,” although “I didn’t get into specifics.”)
Unscripted hit bookshelves on Tuesday.
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