AND NOW . . . THE MOVIE. The Battle for Paramount has ended. Could the Battle for the Deal be far behind? Hollywooders are already spoofing the likely bigscreen docu-drama to come, reports USA Today. Starring as Barry Diller, who lost: cool dude Ed Harris ("The Right Stuff"). Playing Sumner Redstone, who won: Buddy Ebsen, the Beverly Hillbilly, or Andy ("Matlock") Griffith.
Is there no justice? You can luv Buddy'n'Andy, those amiable stumblebums. But Sumner Redstone deserves better. At the moment of his greatest triumph, he still gets no respect. From the beginning, Wall Street and the press not merely favored Diller but promoted him. Traders talked up his bid and bad-mouthed Redstone's. National newspapers trumpeted his victory even before the deal was done. When Diller ultimately "lost," spinmeisters put quotes around the verb-and anointed him the real "winner." He had the good judgment not to "overpay," news accounts suggested. Many predicted that the debt Viacom undertook to finance the merger would only bring trouble. Almost lost in the postmortems was the combined potential of Viacom, Paramount and Blockbuster Entertainment. Headlines in The Boston Globe said it all: "LOSER' QVC MAY GAIN THE MOST. COLOSSUS IN FATE'S HANDS. And this from Redstone's hometown paper.
What's going on? Sure, Barry Diller is one of the industry's best. He deserves to have his name in lights. But so does Redstone. Here, after all, is someone who came from nowhere to build one of the world's great entertainment empires. From modest beginnings he rose to make billions. He knows what's hip, too. He's the grandfatherly father of "Beavis and Butt-head" and MTV, a 70-year-old with ambition. So how come no one's cheering?
Partly it's a cultural thing. Hollywood versus Newton, Mass. Mr. Inside versus Mr. Outside. One made movies; the other made money selling popcorn at his 4,000 odd cinemas. Diller glides through life in a limo, hanging out with Diane von Furstenberg and fretting, to friends, about his lost "sovereignty" as the mightiest of moguls. Redstone couldn't give a hoot for "that Hollywood crowd." The lunchbox billionaire buys his suits off the rack and shows no more snobbery than a shoe salesman. Want to know one of the best moments in the whole fight? asks Redstone. And he tells a corny story of how, the night before he won, he stepped into a snowbank in blizzardy New York and lost his boot. As the tycoon hopped one-footed in the slush, anonymous Big Applers scrambled to help. "Gee, that's nice of you," he told the guy who found it. "Can't I do anything for you?" "No, Sumner," the man replied. "I just want you healthy so you win Paramount tomorrow."
If anyone would be recognized on a street corner, it should be Diller. His star billing is as large as his talent. But that, too, may be why the press was so Barrreee. Much was made of his time at Paramount and Fox, where he started a fourth network. By sheer force of Barry power, QVC Network was transmogrified from an online slinger of zirconium to a pioneer of the dawning Interactive Age. But was the hero worship appropriate? QVC, after all, is in its infancy, a minnow pursuing Paramount's whale. And why did so few mention that Rupert Murdoch, Diller's boss at Fox, gets along just fine without him? "Barry sizzle" counted for more than Redstone's history of turning also-rans into winners.
At Viacom, that hurt. Insiders complain that press "favoritism" prolonged the battle for Paramount and helped overheat the bidding. Other rivals (such as Bell-South or Tele-Communications Inc.) might have jumped into the fray had Diller stayed out. But Redstone, for one, thinks Dillermania cost him plenty. Indeed, when he launched his bid last September, Redstone called Diller to wam him off. "We're going to win!" he told him. "All you're going to do is cost me money!" And so it did. Redstone's final $9.5 billion offer was almost $2 billion more than his first.
Did Diller blink? "He could have won," says one Viacom executive. In fact, Redstone almost dropped out in December, when the bidding was getting too high. But gradually he cobbled together a new offer, backed by a guarantee that Paramount shareholders wouldn't be hurt if Viacom's stock declined after the deal was signed. That proved decisive. Diller didn't offer such a "collar," considering it to have been too risky and potentially costly. Viacom insiders saw it differently. "He didn't make a better offer because he didn't think he had to," says one, who credits Diller's loss to a kind of hubris. "Everyone kept telling him how wonderful he was, how great he would do with Paramount. And he believed it. He thought Wall Street would come to him."
In the end, it didn't. Traders live mainly on the East Coast, fortunately for Redstone. They went with the money. Diller shrugged off his defeat. "They won. We lost. Next." Next for Diller: "We want to build a multimedia company, as we've said from the beginning." As for Redstone, victory was all but forgotten last week as he struggled to put his megacompany together. Already he faces a revolt among Blockbuster shareholders, dismayed by a free fall of Viacom's stock -- and the value of their investment in it. There will be other troubles to overcome before Redstone realizes his ambition to create the "No. 1" media company in the world. Only then, perhaps, will he walk on Hollywood Boulevard.