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Viacom's chief savors being king of the hill

Published Sep. 10, 2005

A Passion to Win

By Sumner Redstone with Peter Knobler

(Simon & Schuster, 322 pages, $26)


Can it be a coincidence that Viacom, the company that Sumner Redstone runs, created the hit television show Survivor?

The show is perfectly in tune with the theme of Redstone's life. You triumph by being smarter, tougher, hungrier and wilier than your rivals. In the end, all that matters is that you won and everyone else has been kicked off the island.

"Being number one has been my objective ever since I was a schoolboy," Redstone writes in A Passion to Win, his new autobiography.

Redstone is the chief executive of Viacom, a giant media conglomerate. At 78, he presides over CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV, Nickelodeon, Blockbuster and Simon & Schuster, the publisher of his book. He achieved most of his success in his 60s and 70s and shows no sign of slowing down.

Yet those looking to Redstone's book for great insight are likely to be disappointed. It is short on the tips and lessons that one typically finds in business books. It doesn't say an awful lot about the entertainment and media industries. It is woefully short on personal details. Redstone's parents are mentioned briefly. His divorce after 52 years of marriage merits four paragraphs.

Still, the book has its virtues. It explains quite clearly why Redstone emerged at the top of the heap and why others like him occupy similarly lofty positions in American life.

Talent helps, and Redstone had that. He graduated first in his class at Boston Latin with the highest grades in the school's 300-year history. He was near the top of his class at Harvard Law School. He is smart, articulate and charming when he has to be.

But what distinguishes the real winners, the Sumner Redstones and the Michael Jordans, isn't talent. It is drive. It is the need to win, the "passion to win."

Redstone can't tolerate losing. He vividly remembers the day in 1935 when he was knocked out of the National Spelling Bee for misspelling "tuberculosis." To this day he is irked by a professor at Harvard Law School who gave him a poor grade. Judges who were not swayed by his arguments in his days as a lawyer remain in his doghouse permanently.

Like all great competitors, Redstone loves to compete. "If you get into a fight, you have to enjoy the battle to win it," he says. His two great triumphs weren't just battles. They were wars of attrition, two epic takeover fights _ one for Viacom, the other for Paramount Pictures _ that defined his career. He loved every minute of them. He loved the marathon negotiating sessions. He loved the sparring in the press. He even loved the litigation, although he would have you think otherwise. "I don't like to litigate," Redstone writes.

And Michael Jordan doesn't like to dunk. Litigation is a legitimate weapon and it is one Redstone wields more skillfully than most.

In Redstone's account, America's other top media moguls are just as obsessed with winning as he is. In the Paramount takeover struggle, Paramount chief executive Martin Davis regularly asked Redstone to up his bid by a dollar. Did Davis need the money? Did it matter to his shareholders? No way. It was all about keeping score.

Wayne Huizenga, the founder of the Blockbuster video chain, was no different. During a break in negotiations, standing next to Redstone at a urinal, he says, "Sumner. This deal is not rich enough. Give me more stock. I want you to add a dollar." Redstone delights in besting both of them. If there is going to be only one survivor on the island, his name is going to be Redstone.

Some will read this book and question whether Redstone is having as much fun as he says. They will wonder about a man whose whole life is his business, who at 78 writes, "I am Viacom. I can't divorce myself from my company. For better or worse it is my life."

My guess is the doubters will be flat out wrong. Sumner Redstone is king of the hill. As Mel Brooks, another very successful septuagenarian, once said, "It's good to be the king."

_ Boston Globe