One of these men just found out he's dead, and it's not the one you'd think from the photo. Tom Freston (left), the former president and CEO of Viacom — and one of the founding forces of MTV and all its associated cash cows — got his walking papers this weekend from principle shareholding nosferatu Sumner Redstone (right). Sure, the official line from Viacom has Freston resigning rather than getting ankled, though they don't even bother with the politely thin pretense of "to pursue other opportunities." After Redstone split Viacom and its host of entertainment subsidiaries (MTV, Paramount, etc.) away from CBS, Freston was put in charge of Viacom, with mogul Les Moonves heading up CBS. This precipitated a bizarrely sourceless, ongoing spat between Moonves and Freston, seeming to originate purely in Moonves's egomania and rumored lust for Paramount. Was it this rivalry that led to Freston's defenestration, or something else? Something ... stupider?
There are many possibilities, some stupider than others. Freston has as of this writing remained silent on the matter, so perhaps he'll shed some spinworthy light on the situation when he announces what new job (if any) he's taking. Maybe he can use the free time to pitch in with his wife Kathy's anemic contributions to the Huffington Post. But in the meantime, was Moonves the culprit? He's surely pleased to be rid of Freston, but is the new arrangement any better for his sinister purposes?
Not especially. Longtime Redstone crony Philippe Dauman will take over Freston's old job at Viacom, and there appear to be no plans afoot to swing Paramount or anything else over to Moonves. Since Dauman enjoys Redstone's full support, it seems unlikely he'll be intimidated by Moonves. But then, one could have said the same thing about Freston not too long ago. Elsewhere on the Paramount front, some speculated that Freston felt undermined by Redstone's public termination of relations between the studio and celebrity nut Tom Cruise. Redstone was quick to deny this, and it seems an unlikely exit reason for the notoriously laid-back Freston.
So how good a job was Freston doing at the newly sundered Viacom? Depends on how you look at it. Earnings and revenue were up on last year's numbers, but the stock remained flat; Redstone ... er, rather, "the board" interpreted this to mean that "Wall Street might not have confidence in that management team." Fickle investors! They're to blame for all our troubles, really.
Potentially more damning, though, might be a wider culture at Viacom of which Freston was just one example. The company has a reputation of internal glad-handing and specious self-love — old-school habits due to its roots as a traditional, monolithic entertainment conglomerate. Freston's reputation for personal equanimity may have hindered quick action when considering the purchase of MySpace, which gave Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. the opportunity to snap up the journaling site. Further, Redstone's memo announcing Freston's departure emphasized the "future" and the "rapidly evolving worldwide digital marketplace." In other words, why, after all this time, does MTV's web presence still suck so harshly? The inside track suggests that the upper echelons of Freston and his associates simply cared about getting their content online from other Viacom sources; they had little to no interest in pursuing issues of usability, appeal, expandability, or any other Web 2.0 philosophies. MTV.com could occupy online headspace equal or greater to YouTube if done right, but instead, it mostly serves as a junky regurgitation of MTV network material.
If stockholders weren't excited by Freston's performance, they were even less enthused by his departure — Viacom's stock dropped a bit on the news. Regardless of how many tea leaves we read, though, the complete reasoning for Freston's firing may forever remain locked in Sumner Redstone's thinly fleshed pate. From the Viacom-CBS split to this latest development, it's still unclear who will succeed Redstone should be ever finally, fully retire or expire. At least he doesn't have Tom Freston to kick around anymore.
[Photo: Getty Images]