The Real Succession: Sumner Redstone, the billionaire entertainment mogul and his embattled family

The Real Succession: Sumner Redstone, the billionaire entertainment mogul and his embattled family

By Simon Shaps,
Tuesday, 4th April 2023
Sumner Redstone (centre) with companion Malia Andelin and executive Les Moonves
Sumner Redstone (centre) with companion Malia Andelin and executive Les Moonves (Credit: Getty Images)
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon

The story of the family who created Viacom is far crazier than any fictional account of a media empire. Simon Shaps shares a riveting read.

“Sumner’s constant demands on Brandon, not to mention his pursuit of some of the same women, contributed to a sometimes awkward relationship between grandfather and grandson.” (Unscripted, page 46)

Some 20 years ago, at an RTS dinner, I found myself sitting next to a billionaire entertainment mogul, a man few people would have recognised if they had passed him in the street, but whose influence over what we watched on television and in the cinema was huge.

The small, wizened mogul with the day-glo hair, ill-fitting suit and disfigured hand was Sumner Redstone, the heartbeat, although an increasingly faint and sickly one, of much of this unputdownable book. Today, the company he ran is called Paramount Global.

I have little recollection of what we talked about that evening – unlike my encounter at another RTS dinner with an Ofcom executive, whose opening gambit was to ask me to sketch out the competitive landscape across British television – other than feeling that he wasn’t particularly interested in who I was or what I had to say. Fair enough, you might argue.

But I do recall his behaviour that evening, which was decidedly odd. It is only now, reading this account of Redstone and the private chaos that surrounded him that it all makes sense.

It is probable that Redstone’s repeated disappearances throughout the evening were simply to check the closing prices on Wall Street. After all, he had a stockmarket ticker installed in his bedroom. But perhaps it was to ring one of his many girlfriends or score a dose of Viagra or consult a lawyer or two.

It is a predictable cliché that any failing company, media or otherwise, complete with ageing, tyrannical founder and dysfunctional family, is “just like Succession”. Or, as the Hollywood Reporter says of Unscripted: “Addicted to Succession? Well, here’s the real thing.”

In fact, the conduct of the Redstones, and the other villain of the piece, the once untouchable CBS CEO Les Moonves, is much more extreme, far crazier, than the creators of Succession could ever have believed credible. Thanks to James B Stewart and Rachel Abrams, we have that complete story in all of its shameful detail, complete with texts, emails and insider testimony.

It wasn’t just that the Redstone family were at war, with Sumner and Shari, his daughter and sometime successor, rarely on speaking terms until the last few weeks of his life. Employees at Viacom and CBS joked that the Redstones gave each other “subpoenas for Christmas”.

Unscripted. Credit: Cornerstone Press

It was the entourage of gold-diggers who worked their way into Redstone’s affections only to fleece him for millions and risk upending the empire. And then there was the seemingly endless supply of young women brought to his home, sometimes daily, to satisfy his insatiable sexual appetite.

But, as Rachel Abrams, who also had a hand in the exposure of Harvey Weinstein by The New York Times, said in a recent interview, Unscripted is about something more than the sexual misbehaviour of Redstone and Moonves.

It is, in her memorable phrase, an account of the “collision of the #MeToo movement with corporate governance”, a major media company’s failure to adapt to “modernity”. The failure to adapt to “modernity” is her polite way of saying that the company could no longer get away with tolerating predatory, misogynistic behaviour by its most senior executives, any more than it could ignore the demise of Blockbuster – once a Viacom company – and the rise of Netflix and the streaming revolution.

When one CBS board member, Arnold Kopelson, was told about allegations that Moonves had abused his position to pressurise women for sex, he is said to have responded: “We all did that.” Sadly, Kopelson may have been right, but not everyone at CBS was in a position to demand that a casting director give parts to an actor to buy her silence, which is what Moonves did to try and cover his tracks.

And not everyone would get away with telling incurious board members that he had barely been in contact with the actor’s manager – who was demanding that Moonves make amends for his behaviour – when he had in fact exchanged more than 400 text messages with him.

With Redstone, he was simply too old and frail, too remote from the fray, to resort to subterfuge. As he entered his nineties, he was still, on paper at least, Executive Chair of Viacom. He was the figurehead of the empire he had built over decades from its beginnings as a small cinema chain and which included prize assets such as Paramount Pictures, the CBS Network, MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon as well as the publisher Simon & Schuster.

But at his home in Beverly Park, Los Angeles, where he counted Sylvester Stallone as a neighbour, he was the helpless victim of his libido – and two women in particular, Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer. They began as his lovers, then posed as his carers, and eventually milked him for millions.

Credit: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan/Viacom/Shutterstock

One sunny California afternoon, they persuaded the declining Redstone to write them each cheques for $45m. The two women also managed to turn Redstone against his family and friends, and particularly against his daughter, Shari.

In Redstone’s dying days, Herzer and Holland were ousted, and Shari embarked on a campaign to recover some $150m in property and gifts her father had bestowed on them. But that was just the start of her battles.

Viacom and CBS had been split by her father in 2006. But, with Viacom struggling under its CEO, Philippe Dauman, Shari was determined to reunite the two companies. That was opposed by Moonves, however, who feared that Viacom assets would drag CBS down.

Coincidentally, this was the moment that Moonves’ misdemeanours came to light. Even then, the board, fearing the reaction on Wall Street, dared not oust “the man with the golden gut”.

Enter Ronan Farrow, one of the architects of Weinstein’s downfall, with his New Yorker investigation, who now turned his guns on Moonves, leaving CBS no alternative but to get rid of him. It should be noted that an outside lawyer called in by the CBS board some time earlier had ­inex­plicably cleared Moonves of any misconduct.

The moral of this tale, told in four acts by Stewart and Abrams, is that media companies, even in the wake of the jailing of Weinstein, the sacking of Moonves, and the rise of the #Me Too movement have some considerable way to go to clean out the stables.

At Viacom, it was seemingly unobjectionable for a senior executive to remark on seeing Shari, then Deputy Chair, in the offices with Sumner: “What is this, ‘bring your daughter to work day’?”

And, of course, Shari’s father was the last man in the organisation to object to that remark. After all, this was a man who competed with his grandson for girlfriends, who picked up women one day, showered them with gifts, including company stock, property, jewellery and cash, only to discard them the next, or very soon after.

As for Moonves, I met him, too, at the peak of his powers in his suite at CBS Television. I pitched him a couple of shows. He was mildly interested. He was courteous, even charming. But then, I wasn’t a lone women, and he didn’t reach for the lock on his door as I made to leave the office.


Simon Shaps is the founder of Simon Shaps Ltd.

You are here