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Q&A With Tom Freston

6/06/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

B&C's John M. Higgins talked with the new Co-COO of Viacom last week from MTV headquarters in New York.


You claimed you didn't want this job.

I said I never really wanted Mel's job. This really isn't his job. There are split responsibilities, and it's structured in a way I hope takes advantage of my strengths. A large part of the job is going to be setting and charting smart new vision for the company. I'm not going to be spending all of my time with investment analysts. People can be persuasive, and time changes you. I had my last job for 18 years. Sometimes, you need to slap yourself around a little bit to get yourself going and a little internal momentum.

So one of you becomes CEO, and the other gets voted off the island. Are we replacing the Mel/Sumner drama with the Les/Tom drama?

No. I have great respect for Les and a good personal relationship. We've each been handed relatively large playing fields. The choice for succession seems a long way off. We have a lot of people in this company counting on us to move things forward without reprising the past.

Would you want to succeed Sumner?

I don't know if anyone can succeed Sumner.

Would you want to be the CEO of Viacom?

Of course.

Why?

You want to know how many people I slept with to get where I am?

How many?

Seven.

You and Les are very different executives. He's absolutely controlling, and you are absolutely not. How does that play out as you share a job?

We don't share a job. You can call Les micromanaging, but understand that CBS makes maybe a dozen programming choices every year that have multimillion-dollar consequences. Les has CBS and UPN.

It's a very different model than having one guy running 100 networks around the world. How do I micromanage what they do in Korea? It's impossible. He has one very large business, and I got a hundred little businesses that add up to a large business. The management style had to be different. He's certainly proven himself to be a good manager.

You say you and Les are tight. Does that mean you hang out when you're summering in Los Angeles?

I've taken trips with Les and some friends to Brazil or Cuba. We've had fun together. I also see him socially for dinner once in a while. He's not one of my close, original personal friends, nor am I to him. But we built a good professional and friendly relationship over the years.

What do you see as the needs and problems of Viacom?

It's kind of early. But Viacom needs to look at the digital arena and accelerating efforts there. That's a place where a lot of business goes and advertising happens and our audiences are. We should be there in a bigger way.

Movie studios are tough businesses and not something you've been particularly in love with.

I've always been very interested in the motion-picture business. We've made about 27 movies with Paramount. Making a movie with Paramount vs. having Paramount report to you is different. I have a big learning curve. Paramount has been on a cold streak, something they'll admit, but they seem to be emerging from that. And my goal is to help them make more and better movies.

I'll guess the next MTV movie will get better promotion.

They all will. I don't see myself favoring the MTV movies. They've done well on their own.

What about Showtime? Do you keep it steady and try and milk it for cash? Or do you invest to make it grow again?

You can't get far by milking things for cash these days because things are so damn competitive. That's a formula for implosion. Clearly, they need to invest in the business. They've been making some good inroads with original programming. The L Word
is a good example. Like any cable network, their destiny will be largely dictated by what they put on the screen.

Bringing BET into MTV Networks seems an obvious move.

It would seem to be an obvious move, but only by people who are not thinking about it correctly. I have no intention of doing that; you won't be saving a lot of money. Also, they're located in Washington and have a great individual corporate culture, point of view, and voice. I see no reason to amalgamate them. What BET needs is encouragement to increase their evolution to be a more fully programmed network.

Is that because of the political sensibilities?

They're doing wonderfully where they are. There isn't a huge cost or performance problem with BET. Why change something that has been working extremely well?

Who replaces you at MTVN?

I need someone who can have this job for another 18 years. I intend to do that quickly. I'm in the final stages. The problem is there's a raft of interesting candidates here, and they're all highly qualified.

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