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‘A living ghost’: Health questions haunt reclusive mogul Sumner Redstone, 92

Murmurs of ill health have surrounded the media baron behind Viacom and CBS, as lawyers for his former caretaker seek to assess his mental state but Redstone himself has insisted that he will never die

What will become of Sumner Redstone?

Its a measure of the reclusive, 92-year-old media barons influence that so few publicly dare to question his grip over a business empire, even amid whispers of failing health. Perhaps thats part of what made a lawsuit, filed last fall by his ex-wife and former caretaker Manuela Herzer, so shocking.

Last week Herzer filed a renewed bid to have her own doctors examine the elderly billionaire, arguing that the man who controls $45bn through his company, National Amusements, is a living ghost.

Those who knew the once vibrant, energetic man now describe him as vacant, unable to communicate intelligibly, unaware of his surroundings, lacking affect, prone to spontaneous sobbing, and disinterested in things that used to excite and engage him, Herzers legal team said in a statement. They asked to see Redstone for no more than an hour to determine his mental state.

But in the main suit, contesting her dismissal as Redstones caretaker, Herzer went much further. Herzer said the tycoon was in not in control of his own faculties, that he became agitated and sad suddenly, and that he was not in command of himself when he dismissed her as his legal caretaker. He replaced her with Philippe Dauman, CEO of Viacom, and made his second the companys chief operating officer, Tom Dooley.

Daumans attorneys say Redstone is firmly in command of his faculties; Dauman himself will be deposed on 26 January.

The facts not in dispute are few: Dauman and Redstones close relationship is universally acknowledged (and often complained about) in the entertainment world. As the head of National Amusements, Redstone is the primary power behind a huge number of major entertainment concerns, including network CBS and cable giant Viacom itself the parent of MTV, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures. Redstone is in very poor health, to a degree that it has kept him from a deposition.

But according to the mogul himself, Sumner Redstone will never die.

I have no intention of dying

In the prologue to a 2001 memoir, Redstone recalled the the horror of surviving a burning hotel in Boston more than two decades earlier: skin searing from his legs as he hung from the third-storey window above the Copley Plaza.

The sound of the inferno was terrifying, he and his coauthor wrote. The heat and flames roaring out of the room burned off my pajamas and peeled away my skin. My legs had been burned to the arteries, now my arm was charring. The pain was excruciating but I refused to let go. That way was death.

Redstone hung on for what seemed like forever. A hook and ladder plucked him off the facade, and he eventually recovered.

I have no intention of ever retiring, or of dying, he told Larry King at the Milken Institute Global Conference in April 2009, about a month before his 86th birthday. The people who fear dying are people who are going to die. Im not going to die.

Its a refrain he has never stopped repeating: in a 2014 interview, he abruptly cut off a reporter for the Hollywood Reporter. I will not discuss succession, he told her. You know why? Im not gonna die. So why should I discuss succession?

Pressed on whether the board would decide the issue (Redstone has hinted that he considers Dauman his heir ), he continued: Well, you can say what you want. I say nothing on that subject cause I have no intention of dying! So nobody will succeed me!

Viacom said Redstone was unavailable for this article. As we and his attorneys in the suit have said, Sumner has a speech impairment that makes an interview impossible, said a spokesman.

For six hours screaming at brokers

Philippe


Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, seen with Debbie Dauman, is known to be close to Redstone. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS

Sumners daughter Shari is considered a likely successor , should the seven-member company trust, in which she and Dauman are members, decide the issue. Shari would likely become chair of both CBS and Viacom, and is said to have private agreement in writing with CBSs well-regarded Les Moonves to appoint him chairman of the network.

There is reportedly no such agreement with Dauman.

Dauman is an unusual figure in the TV landscape: a former estate lawyer whose management of the company has focused on its stock market performance, a factor of legendary importance to Redstone.

In fact, according to former Viacom executives, stock performance is a major reason Redstone dismissed Tom Freston and gave the job to Dauman in the first place. Freston had failed to move fast enough for Redstones taste on MySpace, an asset subsequently bought by Rupert Murdoch, with whom Redstone had long nursed a rivalry.

Redstone bought [Viacom] when he was essentially a stock speculator running a group of movie theaters, said one former employee, who recalled Redstone as pugnacious and even capricious, except that nothing shook his focus on share price. Youd fly with him from coast to coast and for six hours hed be screaming at Wall Street brokers.

When the MySpace deal didnt happen, Redstone told Charlie Rose, he told the board to get rid of Freston and install Dauman and Dooley, his most trusted advisers. It really wasnt about Tom Freston so much as it was about Philippe Dauman and Tom Dooley, Redstone mused. It wasnt so much about Tom; it was about them.

The next Eastman Kodak

Under Dauman, Viacom stock has soared and become one of the most directly investor-focused options in the media. Viacom spends lavishly on its investors, buying back stock (which improves the share price) and returning dividends to shareholders to the tune of $2.1bn in 2015 and $3.9bn in 2014.

Redstone has approved. He was really obsessed with the stock price, tracked its movements every day, said a former executive at Viacom familiar with Redstone.

The health of Viacom itself, however, has been disputed, despite the steady price per share: viewership has decreased markedly at its networks, and all cable operators have begin to feel pressure from Netflix, Hulu and other competitors.

Audiences decline, causing ad revenue to decline, putting distribution at risk and pressuring content investment, which causes audiences to decline, and so forth, said Todd Juenger, a Sanford Bernstein analyst who wrote a report last year calling the company the next Eastman Kodak the company best known for producing 35mm film.

Juenger argued that Kodak and Viacom are two examples of once dominant companies where the product that provides the majority of their profits film, linear TV is made obsolete by a digital world. It didnt have to be that way, he wrote: Viacom has spent $14.5bn since 2011 on share buybacks, while its core businesses have languished from an apparent lack of investment.

Dauman was playing the stock market when he should have been managing Viacom, in Juengers view.

Viacom disputes this interpretation vigorously: the company has suspended its buyback program (which caused the stock to fall) and a spokesman pointed out that it has favorable ratings from Jefferies and UBS. But its consensus recommendation is still hold, and almost no one is doing well in the current market.

Mr Redstone doesnt want you here

Dauman has called for decency in the wake of the Herzer lawsuit, which ostensibly aims to determine Redstones fitness to assign a caretaker. But the suit also contains details of his sex life and bodily functions, and Redstones enemies have pounced.

I would ask those who speak or write about him to look at themselves in the mirror and [ask themselves] whether theyre speaking or acting or writing with a sense of decency, Dauman told the UBS media and communications conference in December. I talk to Sumner frequently several times a week. I meet with him frequently.

But the lawsuit alleges that Redstones memory has failed him, and that he is acting as always but now without it: quickly, decisively and no longer with the full force of his faculties.

With so much is at stake shareholders are concerned. Mario Gabelli, whose firm holds the second-largest number of voting shares in the companys Class A stock (ten per cent, second to Redstones company, which holds 80% of voting shares), has called for a largely symbolic vote to extend voting rights to common-stock shareholders. The vote is certain to fail, but it may send a message to the board.

In the lawsuit, Herzer says that Redstone told his granddaughter she could use his credit card when she moved to Los Angeles to spend time with him. When he was asked to sign a related form a week later, he didnt remember and became irate and extremely out of character, according to Herzer. She alleges, too, that Redstone forgot he had approved video cameras to monitor the nursing staff.

On 12 October, Herzer arrived at the house to see Redstones driver between her and his bedroom. Mr Redstone doesnt want you here, the driver told Herzer, according to the suit. Herzer said she ignored him and went into Redstones room, where his lawyer, Leah Bishop, also told her to leave.

I looked at Sumner and asked, Do you want me to leave? Are you mad at me? Again, Sumner did not respond, Herzer wrote in the suit. I asked again and Sumner made a grunting noise and began crying uncontrollably.

The aides told her to go she was told she could return for belongings later. Redstone reassigned his caretakership to Dauman; when Herzer called later to ask why hed done so, Dauman told her Redstone was upset that he had lied to her about the cameras and the credit card.

As I left the room, I looked back at Sumner who was still sobbing, she writes in the complaint. Despite several requests, I have not been allowed to see Sumner since then.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jan/18/sumner-redstone-health-viacom-cbs-lawsuit