Viacom

New York

Revenue: $23.2 billion

Net loss: $140 million

Viacom execs have been almost giddy while giant media mergers crumble around them. Chief operating officer Mel Karmazin joked recently that he wears a T-shirt saying: “We promise not to do anything stupid” — referring to the folks at rivals AOL Time Warner and Vivendi Universal.

Chairman-CEO Sumner Redstone’s Viacom merged with Karmazin and CBS nearly three years ago. It was the first and most successful of the big deals that reshaped the media landscape. CBS’ TV, radio and outdoor advertising assets complemented Viacom’s cable nets and film studio. Together, the companies bought broadcast net UPN, cable net BET and expanded the TV station group with a coherent strategy that never depended on Internet gambles or high-tech projects. There are no accounting probes and no shareholder lawsuits.

The big question hanging over Viacom is the future of Karmazin, whose contract expires in 2003. The toppers, who haven’t always had a smooth ride together, have said they will discuss the issue at the end of this year. Industry players and Wall Streeters wondering who the aged Redstone will name as lieutenant if Karmazin leaves.

With 50% of its revenue from advertising, the company was hit hard by the economic downturn in the U.S. But execs said in July that the conglom is finally seeing an uptick in all its ad-driven sectors, including radio, which has been the slowest to turn around. But the health of Viacom and most media companies depends on the economic outlook, which some fear could continue to be cloudy.

Unlike some of its rivals, Viacom’s debt is modest and its cash position strong. But the company’s shares have been under pressure in a rocky market and it has shied away from big acquisitions — losing several deals to News Corp.’s Fox. It’s using some of its cash to buy back stock and is one of several bidders for bankrupt German giant Kirch Media.

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