Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Viacom and the Nicest Guy in the Biz - Tom Freston

In April 2005, I picked up the Wall Street Journal to read about Sumner Redstone, Owner of Viacom (CBS, MTV, Paramount, Simon and Schuster and a major radio group) which detailed the plan to spin the company off into two distinct companies in order to increase shareholder value and position these companies for the future. One company was to become the "new Viacom" and the other would become CBS. The new Viacom was expected to be the fast growing part and CBS the traditional broadcast part.

I was fascinated by this and actually contacted Tom as I saw this as the ultimate area to really combine the new Web 2.0 and what I consider "eWarrior" company. Onvergence of two areas that I saw as significant, mobile computing and building an audience (or a network) on the web. Also what fascinated me was the idea of the future of digital and high definition. As I dug deeper and I found really the imprint of Tom Freston on the company.

Now for my reminscence. I met Tom early in ny career at The Movie Channel. Although, I was relatively young (24 years old), I had already worked for 4 years in college radio and sports broadcasting and had 2 years under my belt at NBC's flagship radio stations NBC AM and WYNY FM. In addtion, I had already had about 2 years of experience at HBO (I was about the 250th and one of the youngest employees) and had worked both in marketing and finance where I had a chance to work and read the corporate business plands an interact with senior executives, so I had a pretty good vision of the early "pay televion" marketplace.

Tom and I would have lunch on a regular basis (one of my memories is at the famous Cafe 1 2 3 (un, deux, troix), an intimate Frence cafe style restaurant. We both enjoyed brainstorming and discussing the industry and where it was going. Althought I did not really recognize it at the time, we connected because we were both passionate about the business and the combination of the creative aspects. It was an exciting time. The Movie Channel had about a dozen employees specifically asssigned to run the channel. So some days my job would be to track movies so we could amortize their costs properly as we played them on air or working with the programming and promotions group coming up with creative contest and promotional ideas.

Tom was right there in the thick of things...I left to go back to HBO in 1983 when the major partner American Express pulled out. Tom and a few people stayed on. He helped to oversee some of the major changes in cable and broadcasting. MTV, Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel have now grown worldwide to over 125 different channels in places like Europe, South America and even China. Nickelodeon exploded when the company decided to move heavily into animation and developed cartoons like Beavis and Butthead, Spongebob, Dora the Explorer. Licensing revenues exploded and wehn then Viacom bought Paramount, so now these characters, such as Johnny Neutron could be in full lenght movies. Licensing is so pervasive for the products I even bought a bag of carrots and hit was a "spongebob" brand.

Tom was there in the thick of things. He also was very generous and loyal having many of the people I worked with early in my career such as Judy McGrath (Chairman of MTV) and Herb Scannell (former head of Nickelodeon) move up the ranks with him.

Well Tom when Viacom went public at the beginning of the year, Tom was named Chairman and he was leading a very visible "public company". Every move was scrutinized and written about as the new Viacom and MTV were looking to do deals to postion them for the future and protect the "franschise.

Well, I am not sure what the catalyst for the early exit was, but Sumner Redstone fired his star movie actor, Tom Cruise from Paramount in a very visible and suddent way in late August. He then fired the heart and soul of Viacom, Tom Freston.

Could it be that Sumner Redstones ego got the best of him when his "octagenarian" counterpart Rupert Murdoch was able to acquire MySpace.com...perhaps ego may have played a part. It looks like the new Viacom will become more like Microsoft, acquiring companies that are more of technology driven Web 2.0 firms in areas such as social netowrking, and online/personaized content.

I wish Tom Freston well and can't way to see his second "quarter" century.