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MTV's Mister Achiever : Media: Unknown while amassing his fortune, Sumner Redstone, 70, is about to swing the biggest media deal in history.

September 11, 1993|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Sumner M. Redstone in 1986 first bought a small chunk of the cable television and programming giant Viacom, company executives ordered up a Dun & Bradstreet report on him. What they wanted to know was: Who is this guy?

Whatever anonymity the billionaire New Englander enjoyed back then is surely gone now. Assuming a tentative $16.5-billion-plus merger with Paramount Communications is approved by both companies' boards on Sunday, Redstone will emerge with the biggest media deal in history, a career-topping achievement for someone who 14 years ago came within an inch of death while clinging to a window ledge outside a burning hotel room.

Redstone struck the historic deal with Martin S. Davis, the brusque, 66-year-old Paramount chief who rose from movie publicist to head the company that publishes such best-selling books as Rush Limbaugh's "The Way Things Ought to Be" and distributes such hit films as "The Firm" and "Indecent Proposal."

Both men are known as tough bosses, and they've wrangled before, in 1989 over an earlier contract in which Viacom had exclusive use of Paramount films for its Showtime cable channel.

As the head of Paramount, Davis has frequently been in the limelight. Redstone, by contrast, built a $3-billion fortune while remaining relatively unknown to the public even though he controls two of the most influential media outlets on youth culture.

Paramount reported its financial results Friday. Net income in the three months ended July 31 rose 5% to $120.4 million, or $1.01 a share, from $114.3 million, or 96 cents, a year earlier. Revenue increased to $1.35 billion from $1.06 billion. Paramount's results were boosted by strong sales of textbooks and the success of "The Firm."

Redstone, a 70-year-old grandfather (who asks his grandchildren to call him "Grumpy"), owns the Nickelodeon cable channel, which is enormously popular with children with its "Nick at Night" and the offbeat cartoon "Ren & Stimpy."

And the popularity of Viacom's MTV music channel--with offerings ranging from rock videos to the goofy animated show "Beavis and Butthead"--gave birth to the phrase "MTV Generation."

A Harvard-educated lawyer who served as a wartime cryptographer, Redstone worked as a Justice Department attorney before returning to run his family's movie theater business.

Along the way, he invested successfully in such entertainment firms as 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures and Orion Pictures.

Even as he was becoming a billionaire, Redstone continued living in the same suburban Newton, Mass., home, commuting to Boston on weekends from his offices in New York.

In 1979, Redstone was severely burned in a Boston hotel fire. Doctors initially thought he would die or never walk again. Redstone later sued the hotel, donating the money he received to the hospital where he stayed.

Until now, surviving that fire and acquiring Viacom for $3.2 billion in 1987 were Redstone's greatest coups. At Viacom, he enhanced what was widely regarded as an undervalued company. Besides MTV, Nickelodeon and Showtime, the company also owns VH-1, the Movie Channel and Showtime. It also syndicates reruns of "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show" and owns cable systems with 1.1 million subscribers.

In a recent interview, Redstone said that despite his age, he has been working harder than ever and is involved in virtually every aspect of Viacom's business. "In fact," he said of the company, "no transaction of any consequence happens without my participation."

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