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Media mogul Sumner Redstone, whose empire included Viacom and CBS, dies at 97

Meg James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES -- Sumner Redstone, the pugnacious Hollywood titan who controlled media giants Viacom and CBS Corp., died Tuesday after a lengthy illness, according to National Amusements, the Redstone family's private holding company that controls what is now ViacomCBS. He was 97.

Redstone coined the phrase "content is king," and he firmly believed that companies that produced the most popular movies and TV shows, including "Star Trek," "60 Minutes," "NCIS" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," would always be more valuable than distribution channels.

The mogul had been in poor health for years. He grudgingly relinquished his title of executive chairman of the two media companies amid controversy in 2016.

His final years and legacy were tarnished by scandals at his companies and tawdry allegations in his personal life. A former girlfriend alleged in a 2015 lawsuit that Redstone had lost his mental capacity and that others were manipulating him for personal gain. The suit, which was dismissed, focused a harsh light on the fierce power struggles, personal slights and insatiable appetite that were hallmarks of the combative billionaire.

Redstone's lasting imprint will be his role in accelerating media consolidation and his battles to build, then maintain the empire he constructed over three decades. The lawyer-turned-media tycoon ran the family's Massachusetts regional movie theater chain, National Amusements, until he was in his early 60s. He then embarked on a spectacular buying spree that culminated with control of CBS -- America's most-watched TV network -- the Paramount Pictures film studio, the Simon & Schuster publishing house and such well-known cable channels as Nickelodeon, MTV, VH1, Showtime, Comedy Central, TV Land and BET.

Along the way, he bullied and bulldozed trusted deputies, business rivals, family members and, at times, even his own children.

 

He survived a deadly hotel fire in Boston in 1979, crouched on a window ledge outside a room as flames licked his legs and arms.

"The will to survive is the will to win, too," he told The Times in 2000.

He and his daughter, Shari Redstone, triumphed in bitter boardroom battles at Viacom and then CBS in recent years. They ousted entrenched managers and board directors who had long been among Redstone's closest friends. In December 2019, Shari Redstone achieved her goal of reuniting Viacom and CBS after 13 years of separation.

In the end, Sumner Redstone was a shell of his former self, a virtual prisoner in his Mediterranean-style mansion overlooking Beverly Hills. Forbes recently estimated Redstone's worth at $3 billion -- less than half what it was just six years ago. He was unable to speak intelligibly because of vocal cord damage, sustained in the fire, a condition that worsened with age.

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