Les is CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves. And Redstone's assertion notwithstanding, Moonves was being criticized at the Milken conference for bringing mixed martial arts combat — a dodgy mix of judo, jujitsu, karate and kickboxing — to the Tiffany Network. The May 31 debut of "CBS EliteXC Saturday Night Fights," courtesy of a live feed from the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was set to feature such talent as James "The Colossus" Thompson and Scott "Hands of Steel" Smith. "Most of the time, he does the right thing," Redstone said of the CBS head who green-lit the potentially bloody enterprise.
That Moonves fell on the wrong side of right this time is obvious from the distance Redstone quickly put between himself and the values embodied by CBS' newest show. "I'm a lover not a fighter," he said. "I don't like the sport."
Never mind that the declaration belies nearly 85 years of evidence. More pressing here, to Moonves, has to be a reassertion of the pattern defining Redstone's career. Think Tom Freston in 2006, Mel Karmazin in 2004 and Frank Biondi back in 1996. All served as Redstone lieutenants for years until a little carping gave way, suddenly, to irreparable rifts. Each exit was then matched with a failing. Freston dragged his feet instead of jumping on the Internet, Redstone complained, whereas Karmazin couldn't see past the short term. Biondi's nine-year tenure was more difficult to dismiss, but in his autobiography Redstone tried: "Viacom had grown into a global media giant requiring skills and a sense of urgency he could not provide. It was, sadly, time to part ways."
Such falling-outs define Redstone's dealings with family as much as with colleagues. He has been sued by both his son and a nephew, not to mention subjected to divorce litigation several times before finally coming to terms with his first wife in 2002. His feuding with his daughter, meanwhile, has had Redstone's personal and professional worlds in collision ever since she ascended two years ago to the non-executive vice chair of both the Viacom and CBS boards.
What fatal flaw will be ascribed to Moonves has yet to be determined. It doesn't have to be the extreme-fighting bloodfests on broadcast TV that Redstone has already decried. It could as easily be Moonves' "stumbling," to quote an entertainment veteran, on recent talks to renew an output deal for CBS' Showtime Networks.
CBS' low-ball offer to continue running films produced by Viacom's Paramount Pictures did more than send the studio packing. It motivated Paramount last month to team with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. to create a rival to Showtime for all of their films.
Paramount's in-your-face response not only left Showtime hanging but brought the brinksmanship between Moonves and his Viacom counterpart, Philippe Dauman, into sharp relief. To those who've seen this movie many times, it's clear Dauman is now Redstone's favorite over Moonves by a margin Moonves used to enjoy over Freston.
What's more, Moonves still faces potential career-enders such as "CBS Evening News" — anchored, for a bit longer, by Katie Couric, whom CBS hired in 2006 to redefine network news — and the inevitable ouster this year of CBS as, to quote last year's slogan, ''America's most watched network.''
Not that Redstone, who would rather watch CNBC's stock crawl than any content his companies create for TV, needs anything other than CBS' share price to make a case. Since Viacom split into two companies in 2006, CBS shares are down 3.4%. And while Viacom's shares have fallen 5.9% over that period, Redstone can claim that the relevant measure is their 7.1% gain since he got Freston out of the way.
After many a summer, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley's novel about another Hollywood tycoon intent on bucking death, the firings go on.
Richard Morgan covers media for The Deal.