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The emperor is always the last one to know

American presidents can serve only two terms. In baseball, even a great slugger is lucky to get a seven-year contract. But at Viacom, Sumner Redstone is apparently king for life. In recent days, the media have been roiling with a new round of eye-rolling tales about the cantankerous Viacom chairman’s fights and feuds, from an ugly dispute with his daughter Shari over her succession to the throne to reports that DreamWorks founders David Geffen and Steven Spielberg are still seething over perceived snubs since being acquired by Paramount, a Viacom subsidiary, in late 2005.

What we’re really seeing is a cautionary tale about a sultan who, as he grew old, came to believe himself infallible and has become increasingly fearful of handing over the keys to the kingdom.

At 84, Redstone still has no real successor, having chopped off the head of every prince who found himself in line for the Viacom throne. Frank Biondi, an early viceroy who’d come from HBO to oversee Viacom, was summarily dispatched in 1996. The hard-charging Mel Karmazin, who arrived as part of Redstone’s acquisition of CBS, quit in 2004 after spending four years in nonstop feuding with his boss. Even Tom Freston, a longtime loyalist and the visionary behind Viacom’s MTV cash-cow, got the boot last September, blamed (unfairly, by most accounts) for News Corp. stealing MySpace out from under Viacom’s nose. Now Shari Redstone, once considered an heir apparent, is out in the cold.

But Sumner Redstone’s overblown ego and tin ear with talent has led to an even bigger headache.

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The Viacom chief, who wouldn’t talk for this piece, has been embroiled in an ugly dispute with Geffen and Spielberg, the principals of the studio Paramount bought for $1.5 billion. Spielberg has made no secret of his unhappiness, telling the New York Times this year that he “took exception” to Paramount referring to every DreamWorks picture as if it were a Paramount production.

As veteran DreamWorks watchers have often noted, when someone offends or alienates Spielberg, it is Geffen who takes out the long knives, seeing himself as the filmmaker’s loyal protector. It was Geffen who persuaded Spielberg to sell the company to Paramount. Spielberg, friends say, didn’t want to leave Universal -- in fact, his offices remain there even today.

Geffen, who is out of the country and unavailable for comment, was also furious with Paramount chief Brad Grey, who appeared all too eager to take credit for almost every DreamWorks release.

Still, while Grey and Geffen have brokered a peace, Geffen remains incensed with Redstone. As Business Week columnist Ron Grover wrote last week in a juicy column widely suspected to have been sourced by Geffen and other DreamWorks principals, the DreamWorks team could walk away from Paramount as early as fall 2008, taking their name with them. (The studio’s library and any projects in development would stay behind.) If Geffen decides to leave, it triggers an opening for Spielberg to leave, which in return triggers a key-man clause allowing DreamWorks production chief Stacey Snider to leave as well.

The column’s timing was exquisite, especially if you were trying to signal rival studios of your availability. The DreamWorks camp contends that both Spielberg and Geffen, as producers, have non-exclusive contracts with Paramount, allowing them to produce movies elsewhere at any time. Losing the top DreamWorks talent would be a huge blow to Paramount. DreamWorks is coming off a string of hits, notably “Blades of Glory,” “Shrek the Third” and “Transformers,” while Paramount’s home-grown films have under-performed. In today’s equity-money mad Hollywood, DreamWorks could easily line up financing for a new entity. Sources say that Geffen already has a wish list of three studios he believes would do the best job of marketing and distribution for DreamWorks, namely Warner Bros., Universal and 20th Century Fox.

Fox represents an especially intriguing option, since the studio had great success with a similar distribution arrangement with George Lucas for his “Star Wars” series and rarely makes the kind of upscale fare DreamWorks is best known for. Geffen is known to be a big admirer of Rupert Murdoch, who though just as much of an empire-builder as Redstone, is his polar opposite in terms of ego, temperament and willingness to delegate power.

In fact, it would be hard to find two more different models for ruling a modern-day media conglomerate. Redstone’s antics are all too reminiscent of Michael Eisner’s last years at Disney when Eisner would give intemperate interviews, stoked the fires of various feuds and refused to designate a successor, saying dismissively at a Disney board meeting that “Bob [Iger] can’t run this company.”

Eisner’s worst trait as chief executive was that he always believed he could do anything better than anyone else -- he just didn’t have the time to bother. When ABC was struggling, it was Eisner who told Fortune magazine that “I am totally convinced that I could sit with our guys and make ABC No. 1 in two years.”

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If Rupert Murdoch thinks he could do a better job of running Fox News than Roger Ailes, he’s done a great job of keeping it to himself. Murdoch also has a thick skin. In recent weeks, columnists have slagged Murdoch, predicting his Wall St. Journal takeover will destroy the paper’s integrity. Murdoch has largely suffered in silence. When “Mission: Impossible 3" misfired last summer, it was Redstone who erupted, bad-mouthing Tom Cruise and kicking him off the lot.

Unlike Redstone, Murdoch has an accomplished regent, Peter Chernin, who has given News Corp. a stability and nimble corporate culture that Viacom lacks. Despite a messy divorce of his own, Murdoch has a close relationship with his family. If Shari Redstone had brought the idea for “American Idol” to Sumner, as Murdoch’s daughter did to him, she might not have gotten past the security guards.

The conclusion is almost inescapable: Redstone’s imperial behavior is a drag on Viacom’s future. When I spoke to him last year after the Cruise affair, he had the air of an elderly grandfather, straining to keep up with the conversation. He now resembles one of those old sultans of Hollywood -- men like Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner and David O. Selznick -- hanging onto the trappings of power long after they’d lost the cunning and creative zest that had made them titans of the industry.

In a showdown between Redstone and Geffen, the smart money is on Geffen, who is rarely outmaneuvered. As Eisner and Michael Ovitz can attest, Geffen is an indefatigable foe. But instead of mending fences, Redstone and his supporters complain that the DreamWorks chiefs are ingrates, happily taking Paramount’s $1.5 billion but refusing to allow Redstone to act like he owns the studio.

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What the Redstone camp should be doing is paving the way for a new ruler. CEOs, like dictators, don’t often age well. Whenever I hear tales of tumult in the Viacom kingdom, I am reminded of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Emperor,” a masterful account of the last days of the reign of Haile Selassie. In it, he describes a ruler not so different from Redstone.

“The King of Kings preferred bad ministers,” he writes. “He preferred them because he liked to appear in a favorable light by contrast. How could he show himself favorably if he were surrounded by good ministers? What disorder would have broken out in the Empire if instead of one sun, fifty would be shining

No, my dear friend, you cannot expose the people to such disastrous freedom. There can only be one sun.”

In Sumner Redstone’s domain, he is the only sun, but it is setting quickly.

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“The Big Picture” normally runs on Tuesday in Calendar. E-mail ideas or criticism to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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