Media Mogul Sumner Redstone, Who Oversaw Viacom and CBS, Dies at 97

He turned his family’s movie theater chain into a $40 billion global media powerhouse

Sumner Redstone rededicated himself to his business after getting badly burned in a 1979 hotel fire. Getty Images
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Sumner Redstone, who presided over an estimated $40 billion media empire that included both Viacom and CBS Corp, died on Tuesday. He was 97.

Over six decades, the Boston-born Redstone turned his father’s regional theater chain, National Amusements, into a global media powerhouse, which ultimately grew to include Viacom (and its networks MTV and Nickelodeon), Paramount Pictures and CBS. While Viacom and CBS split into two separate companies in 2006, they merged again last December, creating ViacomCBS.

“Over the course of his distinguished life and career, Sumner played a critical role in shaping the landscape of the modern media and entertainment industry. At National Amusements, he transformed a regional theater chain into a world leader in the motion picture exhibition industry,” said National Amusements in a statement. “Sumner was also a keen investor who took stakes in a variety of companies, including Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation—today merged as ViacomCBS—which he built into prominent, international and industry-leading conglomerates in the media industry.”

“Sumner Redstone was a brilliant visionary, operator and dealmaker, who single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio. He was a force of nature and fierce competitor, who leaves behind a profound legacy in both business and philanthropy. ViacomCBS will remember Sumner for his unparalleled passion to win, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his complete dedication to the company,” said ViacomCBS chairman and CEO Bob Bakish in a statement.

Redstone served in the Army in World War II, helping to decipher Japanese codes, and after a brief stint as an antitrust lawyer, joined National Amusements, his father’s movie theater company, in 1954, working his way up to CEO in 1967.

In 1979, he barely survived a fire at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel, which burned half his body, including his right hand and legs, by hanging onto a window sill. Redstone underwent 60 hours of surgery over five operations and was told he would never walk again, but beat the odds—and reignited his passion for business.

“The fire brought home something I believed long before,” he once told The Los Angeles Times. “Great successes are built on failures and calamities and frustrations, not on small successes.”

The fire brought home something I believed long before. Great successes are built on failures and calamities and frustrations, not on small successes.

Sumner Redstone, on surviving a 1979 hotel fire

The mogul, who coined the phrase “content is king,” expanded National Amusements’ empire with a trio of big media acquisitions—a $3.4 billion hostile takeover of Viacom in 1987, a $10 billion bid for Paramount in 1993 and his $39.8 billion purchase of CBS in 2000—and an ill-fated one (he paid $8 billion for Blockbuster Video in 1994).

Redstone split Viacom and CBS into separate companies in 2006, explaining to Vanity Fair that it was the only way to “make everyone happy” after Tom Freston first turned down the CEO promotion (to replace the departing Mel Karmazin), only to accept it after he’d already offered the job to then CBS chief Leslie Moonves (who departed CBS in 2018 after a dozen women accused him of sexual harassment and intimidation in a pair of New Yorker stories). The mogul remained executive chairman of both companies until he stepped down in February 2016.

“I’m proud about the fact that I was born in a tenement without a nickel and now I control two great companies,” Redstone told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “I’m not arrogant about it, but I do feel pride in having come from nowhere to where I am today.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.