Viacom: The Next Generation

Freston and Moonves Unplugged

Leslie Moonves controls a cadre of veteran execs who run his various divisions. But the ultimate yes comes from Les. A fierce competitor and consummate showman, he relishes the spotlight. The 54-year-old just named co-COO of Viacom not only dictates the star of a new CBS sitcom; he'll cast the kooky neighbor who appears down in the credits.

Not Tom Freston, the other COO. His executives run their networks with great autonomy. The 58-year-old executive admits he'd like to vote in the sessions where MTV programmers decide which music videos to run—but resists the temptation.

This executive shuffle comes in the wake of COO Mel Karmazin's abrupt departure last week.

Sumner Redstone says the differences between the two who replace Karmazin will be an asset, not a liability, to a budding partnership. By declaring that one of the two would be his successor when he steps down within the next three years, though, the 81-year-old Viacom chairman scripted an inevitable showdown.

With his eyes on the prize, Moonves will consolidate his power. He may meld Viacom's syndication entities, including King World and Paramount, into one. With King World, home of Oprah, combined with Paramount, the home of Entertainment Tonight, Moonves would have an unparalleled powerhouse at his disposal. CBS Productions and Paramount's TV studio could be merged, too. Both production and syndication operations will help fuel CBS, UPN, and their respective affiliates. Infinity Broadcasting now reports to Moonves, and he has said that spots for his networks will run on those radio stations in heavy rotation.

Will networks in Freston's empire, like VH1 and Spike, enjoy the same kind of radio support? Wait and see. It will signal whether there is true harmony in the Viacom sandbox. Freston will want the help. With Paramount's film operation now in his fiefdom, he'll also crave support for movies. And films spawned from Nickelodeon and Comedy Central shows won't be treated like stepchildren by Paramount any more. Plus, Freston gets Showtime under his wing. Always an also-ran to HBO, the premium cable channel may go from afterthought to growth opportunity.

Indeed, if one thing binds these two distinct entertainment titans, it's that they'll use every tool in their arsenals in the race to run Viacom.