Sumner Redstone's Viacom battle, how did it get so bad?

The battle for Viacom: Redstone v. Dauman
The battle for Viacom: Redstone v. Dauman

This time last year, Sumner Redstone and his daughter Shari were on the rocks.

The ailing media mogul had offered Shari $1 billion for her 20% stake in his empire, partly to guarantee that she'd never succeed him as chairman. (She refused). His two girlfriends were listed as the principal beneficiaries of his personal estate.

Today, Shari is a fixture in her father's life. The girlfriends have been forced out of Redstone's mansion and cut out of his will. Most importantly, the elder Redstone's decisions about the future of Viacom and CBS, where he is chairman emeritus, are suddenly in line with Shari's.

The rapprochement seems to be at the core of the turmoil engulfing Viacom in recent weeks, at least according to Shari Redstone's corporate enemies.

Last week, Sumner removed Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman — a trusted adviser long described as Sumner's second son — and Viacom director George Abrams from his trust, a move that solidifies Shari's power over the future of the company.

The sudden change in the ailing media mogul's decision-making has led many, including Dauman, to believe that Shari is manipulating her father. "Shari Redstone is attempting to illegally hijack her father's well-established estate plan," Dauman said in a statement this week. Shari's spokesperson calls the accusation "absurd."

redstone redstone herzer dauman moonves
Sumner Redstone, Shari Redstone, Manuela Herzer, Philippe Dauman and Les Moonves

The battle that surrounds Sumner Redstone has turned Viacom (VIA) into a veritable "Game of Thrones," complete with a motley cast of characters that includes executives, family members, ex-girlfriends, nurses and lawyers. At stake is the future of a $40 billion media empire that includes Paramount Pictures, CBS (CBS) and cable channels like MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

However the battle pans out, it is a bitter chapter for the man who was once arguably the most powerful executive in American entertainment. Redstone -- who turns 93 on Friday -- is now described in court papers and at dinner conversations around Hollywood as a living ghost. He has dementia. He is barely able to formulate the simplest words, and is incapable of keeping a lid on the sordid details of his voracious sexual appetite.

Related: Sumner Redstone names new trustees who are 'loyal' to him

Sumner has always been fiercely independent and notoriously impatient, which may at least partly explain why he has always had a rocky relationship with his children. As William D. Cohan has shown in the pages of Vanity Fair, in 2015 Redstone didn't want his son Brent to attend his funeral, and he didn't want Shari involved in the planning.

sumner redstone december 2013

That task would instead fall to Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland, his two longtime, live-in girlfriends who were roughly half his age. Before Shari intervened, Redstone intended to leave these women with $75 million each when he died. If Shari tried to interfere with that plan, Cohan reports, Redstone planned on giving the family cemetery plots to Holland and Herzer, effectively cementing their right to be with him not just for life, but for eternity.

Shari did intervene — the debate is over whether she did so in accordance with her father's wishes, or despite them. On October 12, Herzer was thrown out of Redstone's home. (Holland had left that summer after Redstone found out about another relationship she was in). On October 16, Redstone signed a directive removing Herzer from control over his healthcare.

Related: CBS thrives despite Sumner Redstone's Viacom chaos

All of a sudden, Shari was back in the picture. In December, Sumner sent her a letter in which he appeared to seek to restore the relationship: "I love and trust you and your family," he wrote, according to Cohan's report. "You are all invited to stay with me and visit me any time. I am very sorry to hear that others have excluded you and your family from my house. That will never happen again."

Herzer believes Shari "brainwashed" her father — that is the word her lawyer used in court — and that Shari worked with Redstone's nurse, Jeremy Jagiello, to have Herzer thrown out of the house in order to shore up her control over the future of her father's empire. But her court case was dismissed after Redstone was seen in a video deposition referring to his ex-girlfriend with crude epithets.

(Herzer has since filed a second lawsuit, suing Shari Redstone for $70 million, the amount of inheritance Herzer lost when Redstone cut ties with her.)

Related: Viacom in crisis: Sumner Redstone and CEO take dispute to different courts

In the October 16 directive, Redstone named Dauman as his new healthcare agent. Dauman had been a close friend of Redstone's since the mid-1980s when he served as an adviser for Redstone's hostile takeover of Viacom. In 1994, he became Viacom's senior vice president and general counsel, and in 2006 was named CEO and president.

But Dauman was more than that: He was like a son to Sumner, by all accounts. He was also a challenge to Shari. In early 2016, when Redstone gave up his chairmanship at Viacom, Viacom's board voted 10-to-1 to install Dauman as his replacement. The lone dissenting vote came from Shari, who had called for an "independent voice" to succeed her father.

Which is why Dauman believes that Shari was behind Sumner's abrupt decision to have him and Abrams, Viacom's director, removed from the trust that will determine the future of his empire.

"Shari Redstone is attempting to illegally hijack her father's well-established estate plan..." Dauman said in a statement. "We all continue to have great respect and affection for Mr. Redstone, but he is clearly being manipulated by his daughter, Shari. After years of estrangement, she has inserted herself into his home, taken over his life, and isolated him from anyone not under her control, including longtime business colleagues."

Should Shari Redstone end up with control of Viacom and CBS, many analysts believe she might reunite the two companies (they were split in 2005) and put them under the control of a single executive.

Should that happen, Shari's chosen executive would not be Dauman. The more likely candidate would be the longtime chief executive of CBS Corporation, Leslie Moonves.


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