Sumner Redstone, the media mogul who built Viacom/CBS and Paramount Pictures, has died at age 97.
Sumner Redstone, who turned his family’s movie-theater company into a global media empire spanning television, movies, radio and books, and who famously proclaimed that “content is king,” has died.
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Mr. Redstone, who died Tuesday, was 97 years old.
Rising from humble beginnings, he achieved fame in the entertainment industry late in life, assembling a sprawling set of assets through a mix of savvy investing, creative litigation and all-around ruthlessness. He was among a now-shrinking group of moguls like John Malone and Rupert Murdoch who have shaped the media landscape through gutsy mergers.
The companies he controlled, CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc., delivered an array of programming into American living rooms and onto the big screen, from CBS prime-time shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and irreverent cable programs on MTV and Comedy Central to film hits from the Paramount Pictures studio such as “Titanic” and “Top Gun.”
The mercurial Mr. Redstone was famously hot-tempered in both his business and family dealings. Known to his own grandchildren as “Grumpy,” over the years he sparred with and dismissed several top executives, feuded with nearly all of his closest family members and was so hard on wait staff that he was barred from some restaurants.
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Having survived several brushes with death — once by fire and later by cancer — he loved to boast that he would never die. On the rare occasion that he would admit to being mortal, he assured investors in his $27 billion media empire that his meticulous estate planning would ensure that he would control his assets from beyond the grave.
But as his health began to falter in his later years, a series of battles unfolded over who would control his empire. A question at the center of those fights was whether he had the mental capacity to continue as the controlling shareholder.
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When the dust settled by the fall of 2018, his once-estranged daughter, Shari Redstone, was calling the shots at both CBS and Viacom, as the de facto leader of National Amusements Inc., the family holding company that owns 80% of the voting shares in each company. The two former chief executives with whom she had sparred, Viacom’s Philippe Dauman and CBS’s Leslie Moonves, had been forced out. On her watch, CBS and Viacom agreed to merge in 2019.
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Mr. Redstone’s controlling interests in the media companies will now be managed by a seven-person trust on behalf of his grandchildren and their descendants. Ms. Redstone is on the trust, along with her son Tyler Korff, and several other Redstone family associates.
Mr. Redstone grew up in Boston’s West End, a lower-income immigrant enclave. His family’s apartment had no toilet; they used a pull-chain commode down the hall. His father had dropped out of high school to drive trucks for his own father’s bakery-supply business, a resource that family members say he put to more lucrative use during Prohibition.
After repeal, he went into liquor wholesaling and, in partnership with a local bookie, opened one of the country’s first drive-in theaters. The partners also went into the nightclub business.
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His father changed the family name from Rothstein to Redstone when Sumner was in high school, a change that dismayed him. “I thought my father was trying to walk away from our being Jewish,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “A Passion to Win.” But others close to the family said it was Sumner, a talented student who envisioned a future far removed from any wrongful association with the famous gangster Arnold Rothstein, who wanted the name change.
As a student at Harvard University, Mr. Redstone participated in a special intelligence group that worked to break Japanese military and diplomatic codes during World War II. He attended Harvard Law School and, upon graduation, went to work in the government. He was a special assistant to the attorney general when the Justice Department was pursuing U.S. v. Paramount, an antitrust case that broke up the traditional Hollywood studio system.
In 1954, he joined the family’s drive-in theater company, later renamed National Amusements, and over time took control, aggressively expanding around the East Coast and Midwest. Drawing on his Justice Department experience, he successfully sued the major studios in 1958 to force them to give his theaters top movies at the same time they were made available to bigger theater chains.