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06.02.10

Sex War at MTV

Viacom’s frisky chairman, Sumner Redstone, is forcing MTV to produce a show about a sexy but talentless all-girl band. Peter Lauria on how the Electric Barbarellas may drive out his CEO.

A few weeks ago, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone was spotted having an early Sunday dinner with CBS boss Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, at classic Los Angeles star hangout Dan Tana's. Accompanying Redstone, who just turned 87, was a tall, tan, fembot-like blonde, young enough to be his granddaughter, fitted in a tight black cocktail dress, according to a source at the restaurant that night.

For the famously frisky Redstone, gorgeous, much younger companions are nothing new. In February, TMZ.com caught the red-headed billionaire leaving Il Piccolino restaurant in West Hollywood with Christine Peters, the ex of movie producer Jon Peters. Last year, after divorcing his second wife, Paula Fortunato, herself Redstone's junior by four decades, the ogling octogenarian made the scene with ex-girlfriend Manuela Herzer. During a Q&A session moderated by Larry King, at a Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, Redstone repeatedly, and rather embarrassingly, asked female inquisitors if they were married before answering their queries. A Los Angeles Times report added that after the interview Redstone "bantered" with one young woman, who said he had "more energy" than any man she knows.

“We all know that Sumner makes a lot of ‘friends,’” says one Viacom insider.

But now Redstone is taking his dirty old man act a bit too far. The Daily Beast has learned that Redstone is so smitten with a scantily clad new all-girl group dubbed the Electric Barbarellas that he has paid to fly its six members out to New York to meet with record labels—and forced MTV to shoot a pilot for a reality-TV series about the group that he wants the network to air. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, the show and music are so bad that MTV Networks executives, including CEO Judy McGrath, object to it—and Redstone's insistence that they develop the project anyway may soon lead to her departure.

Shot in documentary format, the show follows the Electric Barbarellas as they shop their demo tape around in the hopes of landing a record deal. The group is led by a singer-songwriter named Claudia, who is described by a source as a "female Diddy" that tried out roughly 700 girls before deciding on the five in addition to herself that make up the band. Sources said to think of the group as a cross between the Pussycat Dolls and Spice Girls, except raunchier and not as musically gifted, if that's possible.

Electric Barbarellas is one of three girl-group shows in development at MTV, but unlike the other two—The Stunners, which was created by Vitamin C, the former lead singer for alternative rock band Eve's Plum, and an untitled project from Janet Jackson's production company—this one has no prominent name or production company attached. It is basically a group of unknown women who caught Redstone's eye.

"We all know that Sumner makes a lot of 'friends,'" says one Viacom insider, referring to the gaggle of nubile beauties Redstone likes to surround himself with.

Indeed, Ezra Allen Gould, director of the pilot episode, said he never heard of the band until he was contacted by MTV development executives. Gould says that everyone at MTV, from Redstone on down, has been "really supportive" and "seem to be behind the girls."

An MTV representative readily admits that the idea for the show came through Redstone's office, but added that it's not unusual for that to happen.

"It's fair to say that Sumner has good instincts when it comes to entertainment," says a spokesman on behalf of Redstone. "He loves the concept of the show, believes the women are extremely talented, and thinks there's a very good chance this could become a major hit."

According to one of the sources with knowledge of the situation—a high-level record label executive who was briefed on the project—Redstone has half a million reasons for wanting MTV to make the show a hit. That's the amount of money, this source says, that Redstone has personally spent squiring the group around to record labels and on the pilot so far.

"Redstone basically told McGrath that she has to do it," says the second source with knowledge of the situation.

Tension over the show has gotten so heated that sources speculated that it could ultimately led to McGrath's leaving MTV—either by resignation or firing. McGrath, one of the few remaining holdovers from MTV's founding regime, has been rumored to be on the chopping block ever since former CEO Tom Freston was ousted from Viacom in 2006. And Redstone, who helped crack Japanese codes during World War II, has never been shy about getting rid of executives who didn't follow his commands, from Frank Biondi and Mel Karmazin to Freston and even Tom Cruise. At the same time, one Viacom insider says that McGrath "has checked out a little bit" since Freston's firing and this show could represent her breaking point.

The idea of Redstone and McGrath fighting over the merits of a potential show is rich with irony, given that both of them are so far removed from MTV's development and programming process. McGrath isn't involved in green-lighting shows—those decisions are made by MTV programming head Tony DiSanto, general manager Stephen Friedman, and music group president Van Toffler. In fact, sources say McGrath typically doesn't know what MTV is airing until it is screened for her, long after the shows have been developed and shot. The notion of her objecting to Electric Barbarellas on the grounds that it is too raunchy, when MTV has aired shows like Jersey Shore, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, and a thousand others that blur, if not obliterate, the bounds of good taste, supports claims of her lack of involvement.

Redstone, meanwhile, views the Electric Barbarellas as passionate about what they do, and really wants to help them break out. "So what if he makes a few calls and talks to a few people for them," says a second Viacom insider. "What's the harm in that?"

What ultimately happens with Electric Barbarellas could end up being decided by Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman. Sitting below Redstone on the executive hierarchy, but above everyone else, including McGrath, Dauman will likely be called in—if he hasn't already—to bridge the gap.

"Judy can't manage Sumner on her own," says the first Viacom insider. "If he's calling her, you can bet she's calling Philippe for advice on what to do."

The winner of the battle of the Electric Barbarellas will be determined next month, when MTV is expected to unveil its new slate of shows. Even at 87, put your money on Redstone. After all, as he is fond of saying, Viacom is his company and he's in control.

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.