Sumner Redstone Dies At 97: The Media Titan Made Viacom A Global Empire "Content is king" was Redstone's mantra. Known for his shrewd deal-making and public family feuds, the powerful corporate leader reigned over an astonishing wealth of networks, studios and brands.

Media Titan Sumner Redstone, Who Made Viacom A Global Empire, Dies At 97

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The man who built Viacom into a global empire has died at 97. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Sumner Redstone swore by the mantra content is king. And the wealth of content he reigned over was astonishing - cable networks - Showtime, Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon...


TOM KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Please, please, please...

BLAIR: ...The publisher Simon & Schuster and Paramount Pictures, a studio with a vast collection of blockbusters.


LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jack Dawson) I'm the king of the world. (Screaming).

BLAIR: On top of all that, Sumner Redstone was also the majority shareholder of CBS, so that includes sports, entertainment and news. Redstone did not gain control of these dynasties by being a nice guy. He was called irascible, a control freak and a lot worse.

Meg James has covered the Redstone family for the Los Angeles Times.

MEG JAMES: Sumner was one of the most colorful and wily media moguls on the stage.

BLAIR: Sumner Redstone's life was epic - a star student in grade school in Boston, a code breaker in World War II, Harvard Law, a job with the Justice Department. When he was about 30, he went to work for his father who owned a few drive-in theaters in New England. Sumner eventually turned the business into a national theater chain. And here's where he made his first big footprint in the entertainment industry. Redstone was an early pioneer of the movie multiplex.

He was always driven, but a near-death experience was a turning point. In 1979, he narrowly survived a hotel fire in Boston by, he said, clinging to a windowsill. The burns on his body were so severe, it took several surgeries to recover. Redstone sued the hotel and donated the settlement to Massachusetts General Hospital, which created the Sumner Redstone Burn Center. This is from an interview with Sumner Redstone did in 2000 with the Archive of American Television.


SUMNER REDSTONE: The interesting thing is that all of the most exciting things that have happened to me or I've done in my life happened after the fire.

BLAIR: The first exciting thing happened when Redstone was in his 60s. In 1987, he launched a hostile takeover of Viacom, which owned some TV and radio stations and cable channels, including MTV. Some of the Viacom executives also wanted to buy the company, but Redstone kept outbidding them. One analyst said at the time, it was a war of attrition, and he wore them down.

Meg James...

JAMES: After he acquired Viacom, the bankers, you know, suggested that he sell off these cable channels because he needed to pay down debt. And some of his advisers said, no, no, let's keep the channels, and Sumner did. And actually, that was a huge, huge decision because those channels really became the engine for his company.


DIRE STRAITS: (Singing) Now look at them yo-yos. That's the way you do it. You play the guitar on the MTV.

BLAIR: MTV became a global sensation with audiences in Europe, Australia, Latin America, Russia and beyond.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken) MTV.

BLAIR: Sumner Redstone was incredibly tenacious. He was said to be obsessed with Viacom's stock price, watching it constantly, and fired some of his most respected executives, including Tom Freston, who many credit with MTV's colossal success. Redstone's feuds with his own family members were notoriously ugly.

JAMES: He took on anyone who he felt was trying to get into the limelight or take something away from him. Sumner wouldn't let anyone, not even his children, sort of outmaneuver him.

BLAIR: Sumner Redstone eventually made his daughter, Shari, an executive with both Viacom and CBS. And their bickering was very public. This is Sumner Redstone in an interview with former Disney executive Michael Eisner on CNBC in 2007.


REDSTONE: You want to give away what you have to your family, be my guest.



EISNER: That's the way you're supposed to do that - one generation...

REDSTONE: No, you're not.


REDSTONE: I'm still very active. I work very hard. I travel the world for Viacom. I'm not about to give up control.

BLAIR: No, he wasn't. Sumner Redstone wanted to be the king of content and make Viacom the most powerful entertainment company in the world. It's not my mission, he once said, to be popular.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.