Viacom Founder Sumner Redstone Dies at 97

Built media giant into $80 billion powerhouse at its peak

Sumner Redstone, the controversial media mogul who coined the term “Content is King,” as he created one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, died Tuesday (Aug.11) at 97.

Redstone, a graduate of Boston Latin School (the country’s first public school and alma mater of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and numerous other dignitaries) Harvard University and Harvard Law School and a code breaker during World War II, was the quintessential media mogul. A hard charging, take-no-prisoners executive, Redstone took his father’s small chain of movie theaters (National Amusements Inc.) and built it into one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, eventually encompassing ground-breaking cable networks (MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and others), a movie studio (Paramount), publisher Simon and Shuster, the former Blockbuster video store chain and broadcaster CBS. According to the New York Times, at its peak Viacom was worth about $80 billion.

“My father led an extraordinary life that not only shaped entertainment as we know it today, but created an incredible family legacy,” Shari Redstone said in a statement. “Through it all, we shared a great love for one another and he was a wonderful father, grandfather and great-grandfather. I am so proud to be his daughter and I will miss him always.”

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, who spent decades at the company and was named CEO of the combined entity when it merged last year, noted Sumner Redstone’s vision, leadership and business savvy. 

“Sumner Redstone was a brilliant visionary, operator and dealmaker, who single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in a statement. “He was a force of nature and fierce competitor, who leaves behind a profound legacy in both business and philanthropy. ViacomCBS will remember Sumner for his unparalleled passion to win, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his complete dedication to the company. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Redstone family today.”

Former Viacom EVP of Communications Carl Folta, who stepped down in 2016 after more than two decades at the company, where he served as Sumner Redstone’s chief spokesman, remembered a larger-than-life figure.

“Sumner was an extraordinary man,” Folta said in a LinkedIn post. “Brilliant and flawed and larger than life in so many ways, he build a media empire with a clear vision and a fierce determination. It was a privilege and a nearly-never-ending adventure to know and work with him for nearly 30 years. RIP.”

Redstone was 64 years old when he decided to enter the big media fray, purchasing Viacom, then a cable operator, from an investment group led by the company’s management. In 1994, he launched a surprising effort for iconic movie studio Paramount, outbidding former studio chief Barry Diller in the process.

Redstone continued to grow Viacom through acquisition, purchasing CBS in 2000 for $39.8 billion, and Black Entertainment Television in 2001 for $3 billion. Through his run, Redstone also famously clashed with his top executives, including his daughter Shari, who along with six other trustees, will gain control of his interests in the company, according to reports. 

The elder Redstone has been relatively quiet since Viacom recombined with CBS to form ViacomCBS in 2019 (reversing a split that was initiated in 2005). He had officially been chairman emeritus of both companies since 2016.

In a research note, Wells Fargo Securities media analyst Steven Cahall wrote that while investment bankers will likely view the change in control as an opening for deals. He noted Sumner Redstone had been against the sale of the Paramount studio in the past, but now any offer would be put before the trust, which would have a fiduciary duty to consider it. Cahall also wondered if Shari Redstone would rather carry on her father’s ownership legacy or sell.

“…[W]e’d say most investors believe her legacy might be one of divestiture or exit,” Cahall wrote, adding he didn’t have the answers but believes “media sewing circles will be alight with chatter and this is likely to be buoyant to ViacomCBS’s [stock] price in the near-term.”

ViacomCBS shares were priced at $26.93 per share in early trading Wednesday, up 1.6% or 42 cents each.