Mel, Sumner, Tom: 'Succession Plans?'

Earlier this year, reports of a clash between Viacom Inc. CEO Sumner Redstone and his chief operating officer and president, Mel Karmazin, made headlines.

At issue: How long would Karmazin, whose contract expires at the end of 2003, stay at Viacom — and who would ultimately succeed Redstone at the helm?

If Karmazin were to leave, Redstone was reportedly considering creating a three-executive office of the president to replace him. That triumvirate would have included MTV Networks chairman and CEO Tom Freston, CBS Television president Leslie Moonves and Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen.

In recent separate interviews, Karmazin and Freston downplayed all the speculation about their respective futures.

Karmazin chalked up the talk to the rumor mill that accompanies big media mergers.

"What typically happens most of the time is when the CEO of one company merges with the CEO of another company, these deals don't work out and somebody leaves," Karmazin said. "So in anticipation of that we constructed a deal that — because we knew what happens in these deals — we structured something that was going to last through the end of 2003 at least.

"What happens after 2003, we'll see. But through until at least 2003, we structured something, and it's working."

People like to talk about the executives who are left at the companies after these mergers, according to Karmazin.

"It's not surprising that there's talk about Mel and Sumner, because there's talk about Barry Diller and [Vivendi Universal S.A.'s Jean-Marie] Messier," Karmazin said. "There's talk about Mike Armstrong and Brian Roberts [at the proposed AT&T Comcast Corp.]. There's talk about everybody. There's talk about Steve Case and Bob Pittman and Dick Parsons [at AOL Time Warner Inc.].

"It makes for interesting reading. I enjoy reading about all the other guys. I don't like reading about me."

In February, Viacom issued a statement that said with two years remaining on Karmazin's contract, "both Mr. Redstone and Mr. Karmazin do not plan to address the issue any sooner than the end of 2002."

Freston said there has been "very casual conversation" about the potential triumvirate, but he's never discussed it with Moonves or Dolgen. He said it's a moot point, anyway, because he thinks Karmazin will stick around.

"The press is always very interested in any sort of mogul rivalry," Freston said. "Honestly, I've had this job for 15 years. I love this.

"First of all, I don't see Mel going anywhere. He's doing a great job. The company is doing well. But I don't really have an interest to be in another job at Viacom. I'm being totally sincere.

"This is about as great a job as I can imagine in life. And it's always been able to change and remain interesting."

Freston said he's had lots of the opportunities to leave MTVN, and has opted to stay put. Five years from now, Freston joked, "Maybe I'll be in Jamaica."