Three years ago, at a public event in New York, Les Moonves, the reigning king of television atop the most popular network in the US, said he did not want to combine his CBS with Viacom because he was “too old and too rich”.
At the time, CBS insiders and investors agreed. The reunification of the sister companies was viewed as the pesky preoccupation of Shari Redstone, scion of the powerful family dynasty who had just inherited control of the companies from her ailing father. Mr Moonves went so far as to sue her to block the deal — describing Ms Redstone in legal documents as an “interfering presence”.
The past year has seen a stunning reversal of fortunes. Less than six months after declaring war on Ms Redstone, Mr Moonves was out at CBS amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct. At the same time, media megamergers left both CBS and Viacom looking vulnerable. Analysts suddenly viewed their reunion as logical, even necessary.
This week’s $12bn deal to reunite the two companies has been the coup de grâce for Ms Redstone. After fighting off two of the most powerful men in Hollywood — Mr Moonves and her own father, with whom she has intermittently feuded over the years — Ms Redstone now sits unchallenged atop a $30bn entertainment empire.
The 65-year-old Bostonian, who speaks with a thick New England accent and espouses a love for the region’s Patriots football team, has made for a compelling victor in the #MeToo era. The family business is no longer in the hands of her father, now aged 96, a patriarch whose sexual affairs were litigated in courtrooms and the pages of New York tabloids.
Under his daughter’s watch, the boards of both CBS and Viacom are now majority female. CBS hired a “chief people officer” and installed human resources managers on all of its sets to “confidentially discuss any potential workplace situation”. CBS’s news division, plagued by sexual harassment allegations against senior executives Charlie Rose and Jeff Fager, has its first female president, Susan Zirinsky, and a star female host in Gayle King.
The new combined company will bear Ms Redstone’s imprimatur as well. Loyalist Bob Bakish has been named chief executive of the group — not Joe Ianniello, a former Moonves lieutenant who ran CBS in his absence. Mr Bakish told the Financial Times last year that he has “known Shari for a long time,” adding: “I’m not worried about my fate.”
Ms Redstone has not crowed about her victory; indeed, those close to her say she has been intentionally laying low. “She took it all very hard and experienced a lot of sexist stuff,” said one person close to her, adding that while she still wanted CBS and Viacom to merge, she “largely stayed out of” the negotiations.
Ms Redstone has been spending time with family and visits the Viacom office a few times a week, but is not involved in daily decision-making, people close to her added.
Her ascent has been unusual for a woman in the media industry, the third generation of a family whose dysfunction and drama helped inspire some of the characters in HBO’s Succession.
Growing up in the Boston suburbs, she watched her father take her grandfather’s small theatre chain and turn it into a global media powerhouse, inventing the multiplex cinema and expanding into television with a hostile takeover of Viacom — owner of MTV Networks and Nickelodeon — in the 1980s.
As an adult, she trained in corporate law like her father, and was the only woman in an all-male criminal law firm. But after having children, she prioritised being a mother and wife, speaking of the virtues of staying home and baking cookies. “The one thing I was determined to do was never work in the family business,” she recently told a conference.
She did not follow in her father’s footsteps in earnest until her 40s, after a divorce, becoming executive vice-president of National Amusements, once the Redstone movie theatre chain that has since become the family holding company.
But in the boardroom, Ms Redstone was often belittled, with detractors saying she lacked the skills and experience to oversee a large public company. Her own father has been known to share those sentiments.
In a letter to Forbes magazine in 2007, Mr Redstone said his daughter had made “little or no contribution” to building the family-owned companies. In 2014, at age 91, he dismissed her prospects as the empire’s next chief, telling the Hollywood Reporter he would “not discuss succession . . . you know why? I’m not going to die.”
While family succession has been commonplace in the media sector, it has almost always seen empires passed from father to son — the Newhouses of Condé Nast, the Sulzbergers of the New York Times Co, the Murdochs of News Corp and even Brian Roberts at Comcast. “There are certain presumptions about sons who take over jobs from their dad,” Ms Redstone said in June, noting how that was not the case when she took over from her father.
Her testy relationship with Mr Redstone has thawed as his health deteriorated and he retreated from public view. In 2016, he was assessed by a doctor who told a Los Angeles court that he had difficulty recognising simple shapes and colours. The assessment came after his former girlfriend, Manuela Herzer, filed a legal petition challenging her removal as his primary carer. (“I wish he had made different decisions in his personal life,” Shari Redstone said of her father’s indiscretions.)
But despite his speech difficulties, Mr Redstone was able to tell the court in videotaped testimony who he wanted to manage his healthcare: “Shari.”
Ms Redstone is still writing her own legacy, and has hinted at a vision greater than simply recombining Viacom and CBS. With Mr Moonves and Mr Redstone out of the picture, Ms Redstone has the challenge of steering the new ViacomCBS through a tumultuous period for the sector.
Her father had used his tax law training to mastermind acquisitions, with deals for Viacom, Paramount Pictures, CBS and Simon & Schuster during his reign. Ms Redstone said in June that “we would probably want to look at something after [the CBS-Viacom deal] and to develop scale and be transformative as we move forward”.
Analysts warn that merging CBS and Viacom may not be enough to convince investors she is the right person to lead the group in the battles ahead.
“Despite what Shari accomplishes near-term by getting these two companies back together, her family’s name will not be associated with excellence in shareholder returns,” warned Michael Nathanson, senior analyst at Moffett Nathanson, citing her father’s decision to separate the companies in the first place, and the lagging performance of Viacom stock in the past decade.