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(Book Review) The King of Content

Sumner Redstone has been a media titan for decades.  The son of a movie chain owner from Boston, Redstone expanded the reach of that business until it was an empire that included CBS and Viacom (which also meant companies like Paramount Studios and MTV, among others.)  He made a lot of aggressive decisions and angered many people along the way (including numerous relatives who ended up suing him.)  His seemingly biggest ally/foe is none other than his daughter Shari Redstone, who has now replaced him at the top of the mountain, although her father's presence is still felt.  The Redstone family saga is a fascinating tale, and it is chronicled in the new book, The King of Content:  Sumner Redstone's Battle for Viacom, CBS, and Everlasting Control of his Media Empire, by Keach Hagey.  (Release date: June 26, 2018.)

Hagey, a media reporter at the Wall Street Journal, starts the story with some background about Sumner's father, Max Rohtstein, who was born in Boston in 1902.  What follows is a slice of American history which includes recently-arrived immigrants finding their places in their new country.  Max's father Morris ended up in business conflicts with Max's uncles at an early age, and this seemed to set the stage for the decades of various legal battles that would take place between family members for decades to come.  Max (who eventually became Mickey Redstone) was involved in bootlegging and nightclub businesses, as well as drive-in movies, in Boston, where he was at time associated with some "colorful" characters.  The accounts of his adventures enable the reader to learn more about some of Boston's political and business scandals in the first half of the 20th century.

Sumner Redstone was an intelligent and driven child who thrived at the hyper-competitive Boston Latin School, and he eventually made his way to Harvard Law School.  At first, it appeared that a career in politics awaited him, but he shifted his attention to his dad's business, and the media world would never be the same.  The book takes the reader on an engrossing ride, as Hagey lays out Redstone's moves in detail while also describing all of the interesting people who show up along the way.  She also does a particularly nice job of making the business components accessible for people who might not read the Wall Street Journal.

Sumner Redstone was badly burned in a hotel fire in 1979.  After reading the book, one has to wonder, in a moment of pure armchair psychiatry, if he had some sort of PTSD from that incident.  It seemed to kick his already-healthy competitiveness into overdrive, as he acquired his properties and increased his power.  Surviving the fire also seemed to give him some sort of obsession about living forever, which fed into his refusal to devise a succession plan as he got older.

In addition to the Sumner family story, The King of Content lays out the history of the media realm over the last 50+ years, from drive-in movies, to cable TV, to the domination of the Internet.  It's a terrific look behind the curtain at the ever-changing ways the public consumes media in this country.  Finally, besides the business moves, it feels like half of the book consists of people suing each other, from Redstone relatives fighting over being cut out of the family fortune, to suits and counter-suits (which continue to this day) involving Redstone's former lovers.  The amount of money that everyone battles over in this story is mind-boggling.  That the 95-year-old Redstone would still be stuck in these fights at this point, particularly given his poor health, is sad.

The King of Content is a fascinating read, whether you're a media analyst, someone who is simply interested in the entertainment business, or you love a good old-fashioned soap opera.  Highly recommended.

 

The King of Content CoverSumner Redstone achieved incredible success and paid a tremendous price.  (pic via amazon.com)

 

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HarperBusiness (June 26, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062654098
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062654090

 

 

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