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Opportunity Already Knocks

A day after being ousted as chief of Viacom, Tom Freston, 60, says he needs to collect his thoughts before weighing the job offers.

September 07, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

What does a media mogul do for a second act?

That's what ousted Viacom Inc. Chief Executive Tom Freston was trying to figure out Wednesday. The man who built MTV Networks into a global phenomenon began pondering his next move, not ready to retire with his millions at age 60.

Join NBC Universal? Take a seat on the board of News Corp.?

Team with an investment group on the prowl for a media target?

"I want to get back in," Freston said in his first interview since being fired Tuesday. "I'm open to anything."

He may have many opportunities. Close acquaintances and rivals say Freston, unlike many other media executives, isn't a man known for vindictive tantrums. His reputation as a benevolent manager with a finger on the pulse of the youth market could give him a powerful encore in an Internet era.

"Tom has built a larger reserve of goodwill than any businessperson I can think of," said Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair magazine and a Freston friend. "Tom's second act will be bigger than his first."

But scores of media bigwigs -- including Freston's predecessors at Viacom -- have been forced out of top jobs only to fade from view or step into much smaller roles.

"It's a really difficult transition," said Bill Simon, a senior executive at Los Angeles-based Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruiting organization. "There's only a handful of executives who have gone on to bigger things once they've lost a big job."

Freston says that before moving on, he needs to make sense of his fall after a more than two-decade run at MTV Networks, where he built a cable group worth close to $25 billion that includes such networks as MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.

"I've got to take a beat and figure out life after the 20-hour workday," said Freston, who will probably leave the company with a severance package worth $60 million. "You're like an addict to this fast-paced life and you don't know it."

Already, rumors have surfaced that Freston could land at NBC Universal or News Corp. and that he's had discussions with private equity firms. The NBC and News Corp. rumors were both quashed by the respective organizations.

Freston acknowledged that he had a surprising number of board seat and job offers in a 24-hour period but wouldn't provide specifics. He envisions being part of a "maverick organization, left to center, with a good honest product."

Few media companies, driven by quarterly earnings, fit that description. But friends of Freston suggest that he may be more suited to the converging world of digital music and content than to the old media universe.

Freston presents a unique figure in the media landscape. As the chairman of MTV Networks, Freston created one of the most influential and successful television companies in the world. More informally, he was marketer-in-chief, staying one step ahead of teenagers' fickle tastes and standing out within Viacom as the fastest-growing and most profitable arm of the empire built by Sumner Redstone.

In January, Redstone separated the cable and broadcasting assets into two publicly traded companies. Freston was put in charge of the new slimmed-down Viacom, but was fired by Redstone when cable advertising unexpectedly slowed and the stock price of the company languished. Redstone faulted Freston for not being entrepreneurial enough in a fast-moving digital era that threatened to unseat MTV as the arbiter of young tastes.

The son of a New York public relations executive, Freston graduated first in his class of MBA candidates from New York University in 1969. He quickly abandoned his first job, in advertising, to travel, eventually starting a company that manufactured peasant-style clothes in India and Afghanistan for export to the U.S. Seven years later, he joined MTV's marketing staff a year before the music cable channel's 1981 launch.

He soon established himself as an iconic marketer, developing the widely known "I Want My MTV" campaign.

He was known to be as comfortable with rock stars as corporate executives. "Tom is beloved by talent," said Irving Azoff, an artist manager and friend. "With Freston gone, it's going to get more expensive for MTV to deal with the musical community."

Freston was also known for creating a corporate environment where loyalty was genuine. Many of Freston's top deputies -- such as highly regarded MTV Networks Chief Executive Judy McGrath -- have stayed with him for decades.

Those leadership skills may put him in high demand.

"There's a huge shortage of leadership talent in the media business world," said Adam Klein, a music executive who once worked with Freston as an advisor to MTV Networks. "At that level, being seen as a strong leader matters. People know Tom and they know his talents."

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