The Survival of the Fittest

Next stop, Viacom.

It was a company that by common wisdom looked to have a limited future without much growth potential. Sumner saw what others did not. National Amusements borrowed $240 million for the purchase of Viacom, leaving his company in debt.

“I was content to be a passive investor at Viacom, owning stocks,” explains Sumner, “but when Viacom’s management at the time decided to buy the company on the cheap, I thought that it was not in my interest or the company’s interest, and I decided to go for it. I knew nothing about the business. In fact, they called me the peasant from Boston but I had a brain in my head, which is all it really takes. You don’t have to know a particular business if you have a sense of commitment and drive and some intellectual capacity.”

With the purchase of Viacom, Sumner secured his position as a leader in the global media explosion to come. Now he possessed a company with television production and network assets. Most notably, Viacom owned MTV and Nickelodeon, two fledgling networks his advisors told him he would be crazy to keep. MTV was being labeled as a fad and Nickelodeon was being put down as just a kids network.

“I’ve learned to trust my instincts, which is important in every acquisition,” Sumner explains. “My judgment told me MTV wasn’t just a music channel, it’s a generational channel and a billion people today are watching that fad. Nickelodeon is the number one channel in the United States. You have to follow your own instincts and your own judgment.”

Thus began a series of hard-won battles.

Sumner soon would find himself in a bitter fight with Barry Diller for Paramount Communications Inc. Sumner won, but the fight was gruesome and Sumner recalls the media was favoring the charismatic Diller.

“I’ve said and have always believed that optimism is the only philosophy in life that is compatible with sanity,” says Sumner. “Therefore, I never conceive I could lose a battle. I might, but I will never conceive of it.”

Purchasing DreamWorks SKG from Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen in 2005 for a mere $600 million made him the owner of two Hollywood Studios. Last year, however, Spielberg left the Paramount family to purchase another film studio venture with Indian-backed financing.

2005 was also the year Sumner ushered out the era of the conglomerate. Viacom announced it would split all of its assets into two separate publicly held companies: Viacom and CBS Corporation.

“It was a revolutionary move and we were the first to do it,” states Sumner.