Freston Set Free

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No matter how much his $50-million-plus cushion may have softened the landing, ex-Viacom CEO Tom Freston is surely nursing a bruised ego after his longtime boss Sumner Redstone kicked him to the curb last week. But I can't help but think that part of Freston is actually relieved.

When asked back in 2002 if he might one day succeed Redstone as chairman, Freston famously dismissed the notion. “You want to spend all your time talking to investors, dealing with Sumner?” he asked. “How fun is that?”

Obviously, not much. Freston's success has always been predicated on his own joie de vivre. His enthusiasm set the tone for the various fiefdoms over which he presided during his benevolent reign at MTV Networks. When Redstone broke CBS off from Viacom, gave it to Les Moonves to run and elevated Freston, it was game over. And when the Freston fun factor suffered, so did his bottom line. The thrill was gone.

When I profiled him for Norman Lear's now- defunct Channels magazine, in 1989, Freston recounted the long, strange trip that brought him to a marketing job at MTV. After graduating at the top of his New York University MBA class, he vagabonded for a year around the States, Mexico and the Caribbean. He worked bartending stints in Aspen, the Virgin Islands and Martha's Vineyard before landing at an ad agency as an account executive working on Hasbro Toys.

“It was 1970, the height of the Vietnam War, and I was working on the G.I. Joe account,” he told me. “I got a call from a girl I knew in Paris on Monday, and I was gone the following Friday.”

For the next seven years, Freston traveled the world. He started a clothing company with factories in Afghanistan and India, splitting his time between, Kabul, New Delhi and New York.

This is the Tom Freston that took up with a freewheeling cable startup called MTV in 1980, whose energy and vision helped to build vital franchises like Nickelodeon, VH1 and Comedy Central over the next two decades.

Freston took pains to make it clear to me that he wasn't one of those “Sun King” types who micromanaged and hogged all the glory. His philosophy: Give smart people the freedom to do what they do best and all boats will rise. “Last summer, I got off the elevator, and there were some of our producers wearing bathing suits,” Freston recalled then. “But, so what? You don't run a rock-and-roll network just with a bunch of people in suits.”

In 1997, Freston got a glimpse of what was in the cards when Redstone whacked then-CEO Frank Biondi. Redstone's spinmeisters tried to get Freston and the other Viacom capos to toe the line that Biondi had been disengaged and not forward-thinking enough—the same spiel we're hearing about Freston now. Freston wouldn't play along, even at the risk of losing equity with the big boss. He must have known on some level, as Moonves surely knows now, that when you serve King Sumner, you're only as good as your stock price.

When the bottom finally dropped out on Freston last week, it was as if his soul had been taken from him without notice. The company in which he had invested so much of himself had turned him loose.

Freston told pals he'll likely take a long sojourn through his old haunts in Asia. Maybe this is a prelude to helping rebuild the war-torn Afghanistan, something he recently spoke of doing in his post-corporate life. Maybe he'll even make another go at the media world.

Whatever he chooses, my guess is that Freston will soon feel like his old self again for the first time in years.

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bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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