Mel’s just swell with Viacom

COO 'loves' co., touts Par pic slate

NEW YORK — Viacom chief operating officer Mel Karmazin defended the conglom’s frugal approach to filmmaking, called Howard Stern “offensive” but “not indecent” and said there’s nowhere else in corporate America he wants to work but Viacom.

The intrigue surrounding his rapport with chairman-CEO Sumner Redstone “is a soap opera, it goes on forever,” Karmazin joked to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta during a breakfast interview.

It started five years ago when CBS and Viacom merged amid speculation of “how Sumner and Mel will get along.”

“I’m having a good time. I love the company. … I could not find a place that I’d rather be,” he said. Literally. “I sat down one weekend with Fortune and I took a look at the Fortune 500 companies to see where I might want to go” and said drew a blank.

He said he promptly nixed overtures from Michael Eisner foes to take the top job at the Walt Disney Co.

“I was on an airplane the day of the Disney shareholders’ meeting, and Roy Disney and Stanley Gold were holding their meeting and were asked who they want to replace (Eisner). I got the call that they mentioned my name. A minute later, we were on the phone with them saying, ‘It’s flattering, but no thanks.’ ”

When asked, Karmazin promised Viacom has a well-thought-out succession plan in place. (McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo died suddenly of a heart attack this month, prompting closer scrutiny of succession plans at other big companies.)

Not micromanaging

Turning to the film biz, Karmazin reiterated that Viacom corporate has never nixed a project backed by Paramount toppers Jonathan Dolgen and Sherry Lansing. “In the four years I’ve been at Viacom, Sherry has not sent me one script to read,” he said.

“I think the movie business is a very challenging and very difficult business,” he said, citing intense competition and escalating talent and advertising costs. “On the good side, there’s homevideo and the international market, which has grown.

“Is a risk-averse strategy a good strategy to have?” he continued. There’s room for disagreement, he said, but “you can come up with an answer that’s ‘yes.’ Jonathan Dolgen and Sherry Lansing chose that.”

“We might not have the biggest home run. But we won’t have something that causes Viacom to miss its earnings numbers,” he added.

Bullish on pix

That said, Karmazin acknowledged Par suffered last year from a skimpy release sked and a paucity of good films. For ’04, he’s upbeat on “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Stepford Wives” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He’s hoping to do a fourth “Indiana Jones” with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford.

Karmazin said Viacom wants more TV stations and that the rules governing media consolidation are archaic. Indecency regs are even worse as the FCC has stepped up its pursuit of cleaner airwaves. As usual, they’re picking on CBS’ Howard Stern.

“We’re fighting in Iraq for freedom,” Karmazin said. “Just because you don’t like the words ‘anal sex’ doesn’t mean it’s indecent. It may be offensive.”

Karmazin also said Viacom is not looking to acquire distribution assets like cable or satellite. He likes the Internet space, where advertising is growing fast. And he said he’d love to buy CNN.

“Let the record reflect that (comment) was in response to a question,” he said. “We believe we can add value to CNN, even more than Time Warner can, because we have an infrastructure” and could combine CBS News and CNN. But, he added, “My understanding, from asking, is that it’s not for sale.”

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