OK, LET ME SEE if I have this straight. Viacom’s Sumner Redstone fired Frank Biondi as his CEO, then told MCA he was not prepared to let Biondi move right into a similar role at that company. Then Redstone changed his mind. Edgar Bronfman Jr., we are told, let it be known he would not try to block Viacom from introducing its new network, TV Land, even though his lawyers argued that it represented a breach of the original joint venture agreement that created the USA Network. Then Bronfman changed his mind. Last summer, Viacom and MCA together decided it would be a shrewd idea to make a bid for CBS. Then both changed their minds. Where did all this end up? Now Bronfman and Redstone are suing each other and, according to their lawyers, there’s no way either of the combatants will change his mind. All of which leads me to confess that I am beginning to change my mind.
AFTER LISTENING FOR HOURS on end to the spinmeisters, investment bankers and assorted corporate hierarchs, I was just about ready to worship at the altar of vertical integration. Perhaps they were right after all — there’s no room anymore for the wimpy, old-fashioned, single-product companies that once dominated the Hollywood landscape. To survive in the ’90s, a company must mobilize a vast array of global brands to command both content and distribution. Indeed, such an enterprise must be more than a company — it must be a virtual nation-state. They had me convinced until I asked myself the following: While it’s fine to keep saying bigger is better, isn’t there a possible fault line running through these mega-companies? Once a company has plunged into so many diverse businesses in so many parts of the world, every time it embarks on one course of action, it seems to cancel out another. The theory, of course, is that each sector of the nation-state stands eager to help the other. The reality: They are all in ferocious competition for resources and power. Indeed, the jury is still out on whether these mega-companies won’t become immobilized amid a maze of conflicting agendas.
ALL THIS EMERGES MOST VIVIDLY when entities like MCA and Viacom decide to complicate their lives by joint-venturing projects. Viacom and MCA participate in several such alliances, most of them embarked upon when times were simpler. There’s UIP, the international distribution company (MGM is also a partner), UCI , which builds theaters abroad, and, of course, the USA Network, which dates back to 1977. Although USA arguably has always been a channel in search of a network, it nonetheless has sat atop the cable ratings heap for the last six years, ahead of CNN, ESPN or Nickelodeon. These latter three, of course, occupy clear niches in news, sports and children’s shows, while USA flashes back and forth between “Silk Stalkings” and pro wrestling, between reruns of “Murder, She Wrote” and tennis matches. These days, USA is bent on clarifying its image, unfurling a new logo, and introducing new movies and new series. Now, it may also experience an unexpected ownership change as a result of the MCA-Viacom countersuits in Delaware Chancery Court. MCA’s complaint argues that the original USA agreement prohibits the launch of new cable networks (like TV Land) outside the partnership. Viacom counters that the suit represents a mean-spirited attempt “to force Viacom, against its will, to sell its 50% interest in the USA Network.”
ONE CANNOT READ the two complaints without being daunted by the corporate backing-and-filling. When he was Viacom’s CEO, for example, Frank Biondi “vehemently” asserted that TV Land would by no means be a competitor with USA Network. Of course, Biondi then switched to MCA and changed his mind. The Viacom complaint says Redstone and Bronfman met in February and agreed on a deal whereby MCA would have its rights to TV Land in return for Viacom allowing Biondi to hop over to MCA. Guess what? Bronfman allegedly changed his mind a day later, saying his thinking had “evolved.” Amid all this, however, MCA and Viacom had time to make a quick run on CBS, and MCA quietly tried to grab Aaron Spelling away from Viacom (Spelling’s contract has just expired). It would be surprising if these suits did not disrupt long-standing ventures such as UIP and UCI, but the issue goes beyond that. Will every executive shift, such as the firing of Biondi, trigger a succession of tremors affecting a myriad of other entities? How pervasive are the potential fault lines in these vast corporate leviathans? But, as I said before, everyone has a right to change his mind. Even me.