Sumner's Witch Hunt
Viacom's billionaire owner wants to know who's badmouthing his girl-band pet project to The Daily Beast. And he offered to make Peter Lauria “well-rewarded” if he fessed up. HEAR THE TAPE.
Viacom employees be warned: Sumner Redstone is on a witch hunt.
Redstone, the 87-year-old chairman of both Viacom and CBS, wants to track down the anonymous sources who told me last month that he was smitten with a scantily clad new all-girl group dubbed the Electric Barbarellas—and forcing MTV to air a reality-TV show about the band over the objections of many executives, including MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath.
“It is inevitable that with me involved this person will be found out,” Redstone decreed. “It is better for him if he lets you expose him instead of me finding out who he is in some legitimate way.”
How do I know this? Because Redstone, in a three-minute message left on my office voicemail and in a follow up interview yesterday afternoon, offered to both reward and protect me if I gave up my sources for the piece. (That, of course, will never happen!)
"You may be reluctant, but we have to have [for the lawsuit] the name of the person who gave you that story," Redstone says in the voicemail, the "we" being himself and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman. "We're not going to kill him. We just want to talk to him. We're not going to fire him. We just want to talk to him." (As Frank Biondi, Mel Karmazin, Tom Freston, and even Tom Cruise can attest, Redstone is famous for such tolerance about opposing viewpoints, and would surely never fire someone just on a whim.)
Redstone went on to say: "You will be thoroughly protected. We're not going to hurt this guy. We just want to sit him down and find out why he did what he did. You will not in any way be revealed. You will be well-rewarded and well-protected."
Shot in documentary format, the MTV show in question follows the Electric Barbarellas—think Pussycat Dolls meets the Spice Girls—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 has been described as a "female Diddy." Sources inside Viacom and others involved with or briefed on the project told me last month that the show was unwatchable and the music just as bad, but that Redstone, who makes no secret of his enjoying the company of women several decades his junior, was insisting MTV pick it up. According to a high-level music executive who was briefed on the project, Redstone has spent upward of $500,000 between flying the group to New York to meet with record labels and on the pilot.
Peter Lauria Plays Back Redstone's Voicemail
As Redstone told me in a followup interview yesterday, however, my sources were wrong about the show's quality. He said he spoke with its showrunner—the person responsible for the day-to-day operation of a television series—who said that it was "wonderful." (Redstone never asked that any of his comments be off the record.)
• Peter Lauria: Sex War at MTV "He told me it was the best show he's seen in 10 years," Redstone said of his conversation with the showrunner—who knows what he's talking about since he oversaw Laguna Beach as well. "He said the band is revolutionary."
Redstone tried to entice me to give up my sources by playing to my sense of accuracy.
"I'm only interested in one thing, and that's the truth," declared Redstone. "Your story said the girls have no talent. Obviously, intentionally or not, the story was false. I think I'm doing the right thing in talking to you because you were misled and I don't think you want to be a party to something that was misleading. I have a sense that you want true stories."
Redstone—no stranger to lashing out, like when he wrote to Forbes in 2007 essentially calling his daughter Shari useless as an executive—seems to have been influenced to go on his witch hunt by the Electric Barbarellas themselves. A source close to the situation says the band has been complaining to the Viacom chief that my story unfairly damaged their reputation before the public could make its own determination and that he should do something about it. The classic ladies in distress.
There are, however, some lengths to which Redstone won't resort in trying to smoke out the leakers. Or at least that's what he claims. He denied, for instance, that an internal investigation was under way at Viacom, and said that he hasn't, nor would he, screen the emails or phone records of MTV executives. That, he claims, is an illegitimate way of exposing someone.
"It is inevitable that with me involved this person will be found out," Redstone decreed. "It is better for him if he lets you expose him instead of me finding out who he is in some legitimate way."
Redstone added that he thinks the primary source is a "young, male executive who works for MTV." Never mind the fact that such a description is aptly applied to hundreds of the network's employees.
"It is any one of four different possibilities that we are working on," Redstone surmises in the voicemail. "We'll get one of them."
Sorry, Sumner, but happy hunting. And hopefully MTV does indeed pick up Electric Barbarellas for a series run so the public can decide for themselves if it was I or Redstone who got spun.
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, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.