On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Wall Street Journal media reporter Keach Hagey joined Kafka in studio to talk about her new book, “The King of Content: Sumner Redstone’s Battle for Viacom, CBS, and Everlasting Control of His Media Empire.”
They talk about the end of the media mogul era, the messy battle over the future of Viacom and CBS, and the dramatic, sometimes lurid, details of Redstone’s life story. Plus: Why Disney gave up on buying Vice and why Hagey thinks 21st Century Fox would rather sell to Disney than to Comcast.
You can listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Or, check out the transcript of Hagey and Kafka’s discussion, below.
Peter Kafka: You are one of the kick-ass media reporters at The Wall Street Journal. You have a kick-ass book called “The King of Content,” all about Sumner Redstone. Great time to be promoting a book I think about media moguls, media mergers. The downside is, you also have to spend your day job writing about media mergers and media moguls.
Keach Hagey: It’s been kind of an insane week, yeah.
You’re multi-tasking. You have two big stories in the Journal today. One is an excerpt from this book and the other is a great piece about Fox and Disney and Comcast and that battle. I want to talk to you about that for a minute because we’re recording this on Friday, you guys will hear this six days later, so who knows what will happen in the interim, but I want to get a sense of the state of play. Your piece essentially lays out the background between the Fox, Disney, Comcast battle and the general thesis is, the Murdoch’s say and maybe even believe they really do want to do this deal with Disney and they don’t want to do it with Comcast. Am I summarizing that correctly?
That is true. I have to put an asterisk at the top of any of this that of course they say they’re going to take the highest bid.
They have to, legally.
Of course, and the one most likely to close, that’s important because there’s a lot of doubt about whether Comcast can get anything through with regulators from the Fox side, but look, they like Disney because they’re most like Disney.
The Murdochs are selling. Why does Rupert Murdoch [care] who ...? When you sell a house, you generally don’t care who buys the house. Maybe you have an emotional attachment to the house, but you’re selling it. You’re not going to live in it anymore. Here are these assets, take them. Why does Rupert Murdoch care who buys his assets?
Well, first of all, it depends on whether you’re selling for cash or stock.
Right? If you’re selling for stock, you’re getting part of the other person’s house.
The Murdochs really like Disney’s House, Bob Iger’s house. They ...
To be clear, right now the Comcast deal is for much more money. Cash.
At this point, Disney’s sweetened bid is actually higher in value.
You’re right. I’m sorry.
I’m two stories behind.
It goes fast. But who knows what’s going to be the case in a few days? But a lot of what our story today was about, was about the earlier negotiations and why the Murdochs basically weren’t interested in what seemed like a higher number from Comcast, back then it was actually a different structure of a deal, and a lower number from Disney.
That’s been the Fox stance from the beginning with this deal as soon as they announced the Disney deal and we talked about — even before it was officially announced — it was sort of out there. The messaging was, “We really only want to do it with Disney,” which didn’t seem very believable because, in the end, if you’re up for sale, you’re up for sale. Right?
You believe they legitimately would rather go and sell to Disney.
Oh, for sure. Listen, again, they’re going to take the highest price, but they were excited about the idea of their assets being part of the Disney machine. I mean, Rupert Murdoch built this company. It’s actually his baby, so he does sort of care what happens to it and, of course, he cares about the number and he likes Disney stock. He likes being part of the upside of appreciation in value of Disney stock and in the early negotiation, there was a little talk about James Murdoch maybe getting a job at Disney. That went away, but that was certainly part of the first negotiations that made them go with Disney over Comcast the first time around.
This is why it’s still fun to write about media moguls because they’re not just media companies, they’re human beings, they have faults, they have some upsides, it’s fun to write about both of them. It’s usually more fun to write about the faults. Have you seen the HBO show, Succession?
Have you seen all of the episodes?
It’s normally described as a show about the Murdochs, fictionalized show about the Murdochs. There’s a lot of Sumner Redstone in there, too.
That is right. It’s interesting, right?
Did you get consulted? Did you get a fee for this?
I did not, but my predecessor on the media beat, Merissa Marr — Wall Street Journal, former media bureau chief — she was a consultant on it and I feel like I can ... I don’t know, I haven’t talked to her about this, but I can hear the Merissa parts of the script or the plot points, especially about when the stock ...
The debt ... is it called the margin call?
Yeah, the margin call. Exactly.
The margin call, so we’re spoiling episode three, but not that —
No, no, it’s fine. Honestly, I think the entire audience for that show listens to this podcast. My sense is it’s a niche show.
Much to HBO’s chagrin. Yeah, there’s a lot, there’s a plot point in there, like you alluded to, that is literally a key point in the book.
The Redstone book.
You’re just watching that for the first time, like, “Oh, shit. That’s my story.”
Yeah. I would say, to me I feel like that story is almost more Redstone than Murdoch. Yes, the three kids happens to be a structure of a Murdoch thing, but you know, the questions about the stroke and the questions about whether the mogul has his marbles, that’s pure Redstone.
What do you find appealing about covering ... You’ve really done really well with the Viacom story and writing about Sumner Redstone in particular, you do the corporate media beat generally, but you sort of specialize in these kind of figures. What is appealing about them to you as people to cover?
Well, I love the intersection of the business story and the family story, exactly what you said. It’s not just a pure numbers story because he’s ... especially these two companies, or these two empires, the Murdoch empire and the Redstone empire, those are controlled companies, so there’s just a lot of soap opera drama that goes on.
Being, spell this out. They’re public companies, ...
... but they’re essentially family companies because ...
Because there’s a two-tiered stock structure where the families have super voting control. It’s a little more nuanced in the Murdoch situation, but the basic dynamics are there. They own a minority of the equity, but they have a really large percentage of the voting.
Right. New York Times, same structure ...
... and then a lot of these tech companies are structured the same way. Google, Facebook, Snap, Twitter’s one of the ones that’s an exception, but a lot of these folks said, “Oh, well, we’ll go public, we’ll take the public’s money, but we’re still going to control this company.” That is a hallmark of these big media empires.
That’s right and we’re going to see that very structure tested this summer, actually, in the litigation between CBS and Shari Redstone and National Amusements. I mean, CBS rather astonishingly is attacking the fundamental concept of a controlled company in Delaware court.
We’re going to spend a bunch of time talking about Shari Redstone and some of this fight, but if you had to handicap ... There’s two interesting stories, right? Well, there’s a bunch of interesting stories. If you had to handicap the Shari Redstone versus Les Moonves, that fight, who do you think comes out victorious in the end?
I think it would be very, very hard to imagine a Delaware court overturning the concept of voting control, ...
... which is kind of what CBS ...
Meaning Shari Redstone would win that fight if it goes all the way through court. The counter is, separate from the court battle is, does Shari Redstone really want to be fighting Les Moonves for weeks and months and longer perhaps? The argument is she has actually more to lose than he does.
Well, if you’re asking is a settlement the most likely outcome?
Sure. I think he’s a very talented executive. She doesn’t really want to have to overhaul the whole board, so if there was some way that they could come away with a settlement where she promises not to mess with the board too much and he stays on for a couple years while they ... I don’t know, try to have some M&A solution to everything, that would be best for shareholders, probably.
The Comcast-Disney-Fox fight — again, by the time you hear this who knows where we’ll be in that narrative — but if you had to predict that, who do you think ends up walking away with the Fox assets?
It does seem like Disney has the upper hand right now. This is an annoying answer, but I’ve also been talking to people about the character of Brian Roberts. They believe he’s not going to stop.
That he is going to bid a silly amount of money.
One of the arguments is it’s actually more ... It is, this is a bigger deal for him than it is for Disney. That he needs these assets more than Disney does. You can argue both ways I guess.
Sure. Although a lot of people believe it’s not only that he needs the assets, he just needs Disney to not have them. You know?
Robert’s family, another family, a family-controlled media company.
It’s weird, the media mogul beat I think was in some ways a more attractive one prior to the internet.
I think New York publications probably like, if you worked at the Times, worked at the Journal, this stuff would frequently end up on A1, which meant you won for the day. I think the internet’s blown that up for a bunch of reasons. Do you have a sense that as attractive a story as you and I find these personally that there’s less resonance out in the wider world in terms of these ... that these battles aren’t followed as closely as you and I think they should be?
That’s probably true. This is a mature industry, right, so what these stories are about is sort of the waning days of something that’s being attacked by something much bigger, Google and Facebook.
Yeah, that’s a really good way of putting it.
That battle is fascinating. Right? The final days of something very, very powerful being overtaken.
Right, all these moves are happening because of the internet. The internet is where the action is and weirdly the internet doesn’t give us moguls that are nearly as interesting. Right? Most people couldn’t tell you what Larry Page looked like.
Yeah. One of the weirdest things is despite all of this, media companies’ CEOs are still by far the highest paid group of CEOs anywhere in America.
It’s a great racket.
I know. It’s because they’re basically paid like talent. There’s this idea that you know something in addition to the financial realities. You have an eye for talent and an eye for scripts. That’s how Les Moonves is paid, which it’s really hard to imagine that being the same. I suppose you could say Mark Zuckerberg has an eye for picking good engineers.
Yeah. The tech version is the product genius, right? That’s Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, that’s the mantle they all sort of aspire to ...
... whether it’s true or not.
The pixie dust, the halo around media moguls is still financially there anyway if not maybe there in the eyeballs.
Let’s talk about Sumner Redstone for a bit. Maybe for a while. The book is “The King of Content: Sumner Redstone’s Battle...” My alternate title would be, “Holy Shit, What a Batshit Crazy Story This Guy Was.” We’ve all forgotten. I think some of this stuff hasn’t been out there before, but a lot of this stuff has been and it’s again, it’s sort of washed over how crazy Sumner Redstone’s life story — building up Viacom, sort of losing Viacom, the last few years of his life alone — are full-on bananas. They, again, can literally be an HBO show. For people who aren’t familiar with Sumner Redstone, how did he build Viacom? Where did Viacom come from? How did he get to Viacom to begin with?
He did not actually build Viacom. Viacom was sort of the spinoff leftovers from CBS.
How did he build himself into a person who could control Viacom?
Yeah, so he got to a position where he could take it over in the 80s basically by working for his father’s drive-in theater company for a bunch of years. This is a regional drive-in theater company.
Regional drive-in theater company, based in Massachusetts.
This is what’s now National Amusements.
National Amusements and they changed the drive-ins into indoor theaters, into multiplexes and ...
His father, right, as you tell us in the book, is what we call a “colorful character.”
He’s someone who hung out in the nightclub business with questionable characters and maybe some mob associations in Boston.
Yes, right. Sumner joined his father’s business. That’s sort of the most important thing I feel like to take away from him is he didn’t build this. He literally was handed a drive-in theater business from his father, who really did build it from nothing with some help from some bookies and bootleggers, of which he was maybe one. For many decades, Sumner had a middle-class, upper-middle-class life in the Boston suburbs running a regional ...
Big deal in the Boston area.
Right. No one had ever heard of this person outside of that, but he was a really smart guy, photographic memory, really got into stock investing in the late 70s.
Yes. With a really great understanding of antitrust law, which helped him throughout, but the way that he really got Viacom was he started investing in stocks, in studio stocks. Fox was like a stand-alone company, the studio. And Columbia... these are almost standalone companies before they were gobbled up by these conglomerates. [He] made a killing because in the theater business, he got to see the movies before everybody else. So he would see Star Wars, the famous story goes, and go across the street and buy a bunch of Fox shares. Hard to imagine today, but that’s really what he did. He spent all day on the phone with his stockbroker obsessively.
His entire life, obsessed with stock price.
Comically so, at the end.
Yes. I mean, it sort of undid him at the end, but the reason he was so obsessed is because he was rewarded insanely for it from the late 70s through the early 80s and he had enough of a war chest, he had about $400 million and that was enough actual equity that at the height of the LBO crisis, he could look at Viacom, this sort of ...
Leveraged buyout crisis.
Exactly, exactly. He could look at Viacom, which was sort of an undervalued asset. He saw all the eyeballs from movie theaters going to cable and thought, I would rather be exposed to the...
Viacom was chiefly at that point the MTV Company.
Yes, it had actually just bought MTV a couple years before. It basically had like syndicated TV shows, like Gunsmoke. They were all in the CBS library. It had a very, very young MTV Network. So MTV and Nickelodeon, and some other bits and bobs, but it wasn’t one of these great media companies yet. He saw opportunity there and when the management of Viacom was trying to do their own leveraged buyout to take it over, he decided to fight them. He thought they were paying too low of a price.
He buys Viacom what year?
That was 1987.
Really great timing, right? Cable boom is cresting, MTV is a big deal, but is going to get bigger.
Lands, and then goes on this crazy run. Before we go to break, just to pick your brain here. How much ... I think you’ve looked at this a couple different times. How much of his success do you attribute to his savvy in terms of financial manipulation — manipulation is the wrong word — mechanics, versus sort of managing and strategerizing about where the company is going?
I think he understood big picture concepts like, the theater district is being disrupted by cable, he understood that in his bones early and he was sort of unemotional about that.
”Business that may be a lot of money, may be rich, is going away, I need to find a new thing.”
Right. And he did that a couple times in his life, so, big picture, his strategy was good, but his success, I really put down to understanding stock price and investing in the financial mechanics.
So, that run that Viacom has up through the late 90s, basically up to the dotcom bubble, you don’t attribute that success to anything he did as a manager or strategic moves he made within Viacom?
Well, he did make a run at Paramount, and he did get a lot bigger. So that was certainly strategic and helpful. But that amazing run, that was just paid television expanding. That was a secular expansion of more houses signing up for paid television. So if you owned cable networks, your boat was gonna rise no matter what.
Right. And it’s sort of hard to remember now because these things are on the wain, but there was a period where there were these really marginal cable networks like USA or whatever, that just came with your cable package and no one thought they were valuable at all. And then over time, they became incredibly valuable because they got packaged bundles. Now they’re very threatened. We’ve almost come full circle.
This thing I keep coming back to in the Sumner Redstone book is, his business is in decline now, right? Which is why his daughter now wants to combine Viacom and CBS. Those companies keep getting combined, split apart, combined, now she wants to combine them again. And as we’ll talk about, he appears to no longer be in control of his body or mind.
But even without that, do you think that he would’ve been able to figure a way out of the problem that is besetting Viacom and the rest of the media business?
That’s a question I try to sort of ask at the end of the book, and here’s what I think. He had a brilliant legal mind for antitrust. And I feel like that might be a useful skill to have in the current media environment where all of these media companies are facing competition with Facebook and Google.
And that’s a drum that the Murdoch family has been beating for about a decade without any success.
Correct. Yeah, so the current version of antitrust law doesn’t really leave a big door open for that, but he was able, throughout his life, decade after decade, to use antitrust law to win business cases. Sometimes he’d just use it as a threat, sometimes he’d just rattle your saber.
And by the way, one of his moves was to go after YouTube, to sue YouTube. Did not work at all. Spent six years, got really nothing for it.
That’s right. I mean, he was, to be fair, that was sort of at the end of his mental vitality.
But I guess it sort of illustrates the limits of taking a legal attack to this threat.
Totally. Absolutely. Did not work, although it was very, very early in the process. So yes, sure, I would love to know what his mind would do if it were still at its peak with this challenge, which I do think might be partially a legal challenge.
Famously — famous is the wrong word — famously for nerds like you and me, [he] was interested in MySpace, or his team was interested in MySpace. Murdoch came in over a weekend and bought it, sort of led to him firing Tom Freston. And so there was a point where he was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on MySpace, didn’t get it, and instead didn’t really buy anything for years after that.
I was thinking about this. So he clearly was not able to sort of deal with the internet. Didn’t figure out how to invest in it, didn’t figure out how to fight it. I’m not sure, is there any media mogul from his era that has really done it? It doesn’t seem like they have?
No. As far as I know, there really hasn’t been. And that’s why, at the end of the book, the CEO of Viacom, Philippe Dauman, the former CEO, he comes under a lot of criticism from a lot of places. The stock price did very poorly, he was overseeing Viacom when it basically invested in no digital. But, in his defense, there really aren’t a lot of good examples. There are people who bought chunks of things. Now we’re getting a little close to home, I understand. But you know, there’s not a great example of a media mogul who got digital and did well. At best, people have treaded water.
Yeah, treaded water, I think the best you can say is that some companies are just relatively stronger — not, frankly, because they’ve invested in digital, but maybe because they just have more stuff. Disney and Comcast, right, have enough mass that they might be able to sort of fend this off, or at least position themselves in a… but not because you can point to any digital investment. That’s why you were pointing at me saying, “It’s close to home,” because Comcast invested in us and BuzzFeed and Snap. And I think now they’re done investing in advertising-based digital businesses. That’s my sense. If you have a transactional business, they’re very interested in it. Will be fun. And this is a very nice office they’ve helped us acquire.
Yeah, we’ve got La Croix. Everything is good here. So we get to this weird part of the, and which is this great part of the book, where Sumner Redstone’s business is declining, and then, at the same time, his health and brain are declining. And I can’t do this part of the story justice because that’s why you wrote an entire book about it. But it’s a crazy story with a bunch of twists and turns. It is, and you lay out quite clearly how pretty much everyone in this story behaves badly multiple times. The best you can say about some of those people is that they weren’t truthful I think in some cases.
There’s a back and forth where Philippe Dauman, who’s running Viacom, and Shari Redstone are both battling over whether Sumner Redstone is coherent and competent and able to make decisions, and they basically flip positions within a year because they’re having a different battle, but they now take out opposite sides. When you’re reporting out a story like that, where it’s clear that multiple people are saying things in public that aren’t true, how do you sift and winnow and figure out how you wanna write about that?
It was so hard because while I was writing this book, so much of the litigation is still ongoing. And we struggle with this in the newspaper all the time.
The Journal, you’re very constrained. You can’t go, “Oh, well this is clearly bullshit,” right? Because it’s the Journal and you have to. But as an author, a little more leeway, right?
Yeah. So, I tried, with the distance of some time, to say what I really thought about that in the book, and basically, what I thought about that is that all those people knew for years that Sumner did not have it together in his mind, but they all had very personal reasons for not basically telling shareholders that the salary-drawing chairman of this company was non compos mentis.
I feel like we’re all kind of complicit, right? Like, I don’t have any fight’s dog, whatever the metaphor is, I don’t care.
No dogs in the fight, for sure.
But I would listen in to these conference calls like you and everybody else, and you’d hear Sumner Redstone. He didn’t seem like someone who was in command of himself. At the beginning, he would sort of utter, he would read a little phrase praising Les Moonves or praising Philippe Dauman, it did not convey the sense that this guy was in charge of the company at this point. And we all just sort of went, “Aw.”
Right. And what’s crazy, to this day, he is still legally having capacity, even though no one has seen or heard from him except for a few people who are close to Shari, and it’s all secondhand. So the reason that no one pulled the trigger and said, “He lacks capacity,” even though they had a whole game plan for what to do when that happened, was because after he died, there was this trust ... Shari Redstone, his daughter, was on it, Philippe Dauman was on it, and they each had a reason for not wanting that trigger to be pulled.
Shari didn’t want it to be pulled because that would mean all of a sudden she was on a seven-person trust with her enemy. Maybe there was a better way for her to get a more pole position, which is basically what happened.
And Philippe, it’s complicated, but the two reasons he didn’t do it are, number one, he was CEO of a company and getting paid millions of dollars.
Tens of millions of dollars.
And you know, he was very close to Sumner and Sumner was legally okay, and I think, honestly, a lot of people said it would’ve really hurt Sumner’s feelings if he’d been declared incapacitated, which I know sounds totally ridiculous.
Yep. Again, I can’t do it justice. There is a whole cast of characters, there’s multiple girlfriends living with him in his mansion in Beverly Hills, there’s the nurses who are kind of on his side and secretly reporting back what the girlfriends are doing back to Shari Redstone, there’s Philippe Dauman sort of sneaking in to see him and demanding that all these folks leave the room so he can have a private conversation. It’s debated what that conversation means. There’s a crazy sex tape — that I didn’t ever remember hearing about until I read your book — that I played for myself last night.
It’s amazing. It’s amazing. It’s not him actually having sex, it’s him trying to entice a woman to have a foursome with himself, someone else and Bob Evans, the famed producer. And if you don’t wanna eat, you should go listen to that.
I apologize for that.
It is crazy. So, you know, I think something happens maybe to your mind at the end of your life as you’re starting to lose a grasp-
You think that’s a sign of his decline, not, this is the person who he’d been for, you have a throwaway line in there about someone taking him and his wife to a sex show in Thailand and you say, “It was his first glimpse of commercial sex, but wouldn’t be his last.”
That’s true. That was in the 90s so yeah, okay. So yes, he had these tastes for a long time for sure.
And again, it’s not just that it’s the sex part is lurid. He’s a gross person. He throws steaks and turkey legs at waitstaff that upset him. He’s a, the polite version is “difficult.” Right? I don’t think you would want to be in his family.
I mean, he was a terrible father, I’ve gotta come out and say it. I think, to me, the biggest takeaway about him and really the whole book, is the limits and the risks of this meritocratic idea that, if you’re smart enough, you basically can take whatever you want. You earned the thing that you built through your brilliant decisions, and therefore you have endless license to treat people like dirt, kind of.
Yeah. And if you have enough power, we’re used to this with more traditional celebrities, you can create a world in which no one’s gonna tell you otherwise. No one’s gonna stop you from doing things that are clearly bad for other people and ultimately for yourself.
And the essence of the Redstone fight is that he did surround himself with these lieutenants. He created all these trust and estate plans, etc. etc. Consisting of these guys, these dudes, mostly from Boston, not exclusively. Philippe was one of them. But because of his divorce with his wife of 52 years, his daughter had to be technically part of that. And she was not a yes man like everyone else. And that is where all of the conflict comes from.
You seem sympathetic to Shari Redstone as a character, even though she, again, the polite version was, “She has some hard edges herself.”
Yeah. She’s not a hero at all, but she’s had to put up with a lot of crap.
Crap from her father and then crap as a woman not being taken seriously in the business, as a woman not being taken seriously because she’s “dad’s daughter at the company” in the way that presumably Brian Roberts did not have to deal with at his father’s company, while he was building Comcast.
Right, that’s true. If you just look at her résumé… It’s weird, when I write about Shari, I get all these comments in the commenting section of the newspaper that are disgusting and savage and sexist, as you might think, and, you know, “Who is this person? She’s never done a single thing in her life. She’s just some heiress.” And that’s not true. She worked at the theater company for decades.
She’s a lawyer, herself.
She’s a lawyer, herself. She did all the things that her father before her had done to earn a place into National Amusements. She did take 10 years off to be with her kids, but she’s not sitting on the couch eating bon bons. And I feel like she has had to overcome so much doubt, that I thought that was an important part of the story to tell. That said, there are voices in the book that tell what they think about her managerial and operational capabilities that are not complimentary.
Yeah. You draw a parallel between her and Katharine Graham, now lauded as the former owner of the Washington Post.
There’s a movie about her.
I know, yeah.
And again, it’s worth pointing out. She’s literally the only woman running a media empire right now.
So, running, but also owning. That was ... When I really started to look at it, there’s so much talk about where women are in the hierarchy of management, but those are all just salaried people. I mean, this world really runs on who owns things. And yes, these are public companies, but there’s never ... As I said in the piece today, there’s never been a woman in American history that has controlled, as an owner, as much media as she does now.
And what do you think her end game is? I have a sense, but I want to hear your version of it. Present tense. She controls both CBS and Viacom. She now, twice, has tried to get them to merge. She’s fighting one of her employees about whether that’s going to happen. Regardless of how that fight works out, what do you think her intent is?
I think she would love to merge CBS and Viacom and sell the whole thing to Verizon.
That’s kind of the boring answer, but we’ll see.
Right, which is again sort of where we’re at. Right? No one has a good plan. No one who’s running a media company has a good plan to keep running it.
It’s find someone else to buy it. Merge if you can to sort of stay bigger and stave off things, but hopefully, you hope someone comes and bails you out.
Right, which tells you everything. That’s the same thing as the Fox story. I mean, that’s why Rupert Murdoch is selling his empire because he didn’t see any way out, which I guess kind of goes back to what we were talking about a little bit before. Like if that’s the playing field, maybe we should examine the playing field.
Yeah. I keep talking about that and asking people who are selling and buying: “Look, if Rupert Murdoch is selling ... He’s a really good operator. If Jeff Bewkes is selling ... He’s a really good operator. Why do you want to be the buyer?” which is a different question.
Yeah. That is a great question, and the people who are buyers, the Verizons, the AT&Ts, I think that they ... First of all, they’re so big, right, that if it all goes south, it’s not the end of the world. I mean, Time Warner is a very expensive company, but still. So that’s part of it, and their own businesses are pinched. The wireless business. Growth isn’t great.
So I can see why one might think that bundling content with wireless might be a good idea. I’m not convinced that it is.
Yeah, you and I have the same eyebrow-raised skepticism about this. I mean, yeah, the AT&T thing is ... They can’t quite come out and say this, but “We have a slow/no-growth business. We think if we add another slow/no-growth business to that, at least we can continue to keep things steady.”
Right. And theoretically to bundle together distribution ...
Bundle something, advertising something, something. It’s all kind of hand wavy.
It is a little hand wavy. Yeah. So I’m curious to see what happens when, now we’re going to see. Like, “Okay, what’s your actual plan for doing this?”
You point out in the book that Viacom was an early investor in Vice, which seemed smart at the time. Then they unwound it, and in the way you’re telling the story, them unwinding Vice is an opportunity they missed, right? Because the company went on to become much more valuable. Most recently, it’s worth six billion dollars, but since that last round of money, Shane Smith is out. Nancy Dubuc is in. There’s a lot of reporting about, maybe the company is not nearly as solid as we thought it was? There’s always questions about it. What do you think happens to Vice?
Well, that is a challenging question. Do I ... Okay. What do I think? I think that it is possible that TPG could end up with control of the company.
This is the equity fund.
The equity fund that came in-
Did the last round.
Right. With pretty onerous terms. I mean, that’s maybe a worst-case scenario. I do think it will be interesting to see when some of the investors who’ve been in there for a while, who have seen great growth and value want out, are they really going to get out at the current valuation? I don’t think people think that.
You wrote one of the stories laying out, quite specifically, that Vice and Disney were in sales talks. Disney was looking at buying Vice. Shane Smith, who was running Vice, “I’m happy to sell.” There were months where everyone said, “Oh, this deal is happening. It’s a done deal. They’re doing the due diligence over in Williamsburg right now, it’s done, it’s done, it’s done.”
It wasn’t even an open secret, right? We all just said it was happening. Didn’t happen. Why do you think that deal didn’t happen?
Couple of reasons. I think that it was a cultural clash a little bit. I think that Disney was scared of the Vice brand and all the dangers that came with it.
For all the obvious reasons that we saw at the get-go, but at one point they said, “That’s okay. They’re cool. We like that they’re cool.”
Then you thought they had second thoughts about that.
So there’s certainly a cultural thing. Also what happened is Vice’s TV channel was a bit disappointing out of the gate, and am I being-
Spoken like a Wall Street Journal reporter.
It’s a zero! I mean, I know Nancy will jump down my throat or anyone’s throat for saying it, but they created this Viceland channel, and no one’s watching it.
Right. I mean, do you really want to be the last person on earth to launch a cable channel? That’s basically what it was.
And it was this great counterintuitive — “Look at our balls,” right? “We’re so great at this that we can make millennials watch cable TV,” was the Vice pitch.
Turns out they can’t.
And it was maybe ... I mean, the real benefit to them was to go to their advertisers and say, “Now you can be on TV!” because that’s what ... Even still, with all the data and targeting, advertisers...
And then Shane Smith meanwhile was saying, “And by the way, we’re getting paid for this. So look how smart we are because we’re getting paid to put this stuff out there.”
Right. So launching these cable channels is very, very, very hard. Takes years and especially if you’re venture-funded, do you have the time to build that audience, especially if the whole thing’s shrinking? So I think-
Do you think launching that cable channel is the thing that sort of ultimately sunk ... the nonperformance of that is what sunk it for Disney?
I don’t think that’s the only thing, but I do know that that came back to the whole chain of A&E and Disney and did not put a halo around the heads of the people responsible for those decisions within the Disney chain of command.
Right. We already have a lot of problems with our cable channels. We’ve already invested in this thing. Why do we want to own the entire thing? We’ve already got ... We’ve got multiple problems with cable channels. Why would we want to go and buy another problem?
Also they made Viceland out of H2, which is like this History Channel spinoff, and H2 had pretty good ratings. That was a sure thing. So you can see how some bean counters up at Disney would squint and look at that and say, “Okay, now let me get this right...”
Now you’ve got Nancy Dubuc, who championed that deal at A&E, is now out of A&E and now running Vice. It’s kind of her mess to clean up.
Do you think she’ll be able to?
I think that she’s an experienced programmer who, if anyone can fix the channel, it would be her. Right? She knows how to make shows that have beginning, middles, and ends.
Do I think that she can ... By fix, what does that mean? Does that mean sell the company for more than 5.7 billion dollars? No.
Yeah. So let’s bring this back to media moguls. One of the things that interests me is the lack of sort of new and interesting media moguls. Right? They’re literally leaving the stage. They’re selling off. They’re going to be dying. There aren’t really interesting internet moguls replacing them.
Of the current crop of sort of younger media moguls, right, the Brian Robertses, James, Lachlan, it’s a pretty short list. Right?
Who are you most intrigued by as a character? Who are you most intrigued about writing about for the next five years?
Oh, for the next five years… Well, look, the new ... This is strange because I work for the Wall Street Journal, but I do feel like the younger Murdochs are interesting. I think that’s a juicy story that people have taken cracks at, but there’s a lot more there.
Do you think James leaves, leaves? I mean, he’s going to leave the company. Do you think he leaves media?
Not necessarily. I mean, I know that he’s going off to do some investing thing. A little unclear what that is, I think even to him at this point. I don’t think it will necessarily be limited to media. He has a very ... a mind that can really absorb technological concepts very well, so I could totally see him just doing tech stuff.
He’s a technocrat. He’s into talking about targeted advertising, or at least was, six months ago.
Yeah, to a degree for a CEO that I’ve only ever seen in Tim Armstrong, actually, but besides that, I mean, Lachlan is actually a character that people haven’t read a lot about or know a lot about. And I think he’s going to become increasingly interesting, but beyond that, your first point is true. I mean, there isn’t a new crop.
We’re going to have to invent some.
Yeah. How about you? I nominate Peter Kafka.
No. If Jim Bankoff is still listening...
But Jim makes a point of being aggressively dull in the best way possible.
Well, there are advantages to that. Right?
Yeah. You’re not going to write a book about Jim. He’s good. Jim, I say this with much love and respect as your employee.
Keach, this is a great book. People should read it. You did yourself a terrible disservice because you tweeted out a review that said, “This book will not put you to sleep on the beach.”
We can do better than that. This is a wild-ass book. This is a crazy story. There is sex. There’s crazy family drama, billions of dollars. It’s got a Shakespearean scope to it. You should go read it. There. That’s my tweet line for review. Good?
Keach Hagey, thanks for coming.
Thanks for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.