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Big media execs and coffee talk

With earnings coming out today, which means he can’t talk business, and CNN’s Larry King as his interviewer, Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. Chairman Sumner Redstone was able to dodge a grilling during his interview session at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills.

Instead, the two seemed to be rehearsing for a summer tour of the Catskills.

A sampling:

King: “How old are you?”

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Redstone: “I’m 65.” (He’s actually 85.)

King: “Then you don’t look so amazing.”

Although Redstone did not share much business wisdom, he did say that at Viacom he “treats everyone like a member of my family.” Considering his latest marriage ended after five years, he’s estranged from his son Brent and he has a tense relationship with his daughter, Shari, we’re not so sure how much comfort Viacom employees should take in that.

Redstone didn’t steer completely clear of shop talk, however. He laughed off the idea of Jay Leno’s new prime-time show being a threat to CBS. “CSI will beat the hell out of him,” Redstone said. He also predicted that Paramount’s new “Star Trek” movie would be a blockbuster.

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As for new media and technology such as Facebook and Twitter, Redstone cracked, “I have people that do that stuff for me.”

Although he may not be twittering or updating his Facebook status, Redstone still reads newspapers and had kind words for Rupert Murdoch’s stewardship of the Wall Street Journal. “He hasn’t screwed it up like the New York Post,” he said. However, Redstone doesn’t have much faith that the newspaper business will outlive him. “I think it is dying,” he said of print.

But he is sure that he will be around in 10 years. We lost count of how many times he said he wasn’t going to die. King cracked that a eulogist at his funeral would simply say, “He lied.”

Redstone shared his longevity secret, which includes a diet that has a heavy dose of antioxidants, tomato juice with “drugs for men,” fish, red wine and vodka.

Redstone expressed frustration at being a bachelor again. “Most of the attractive women I know are married,” he said.

Later, during the audience Q & A session, Redstone asked several female questioners whether they were married (most were), which he said proved his point. After the interview Redstone bantered with one young woman that he had “more energy” than any man she knew.

*

Peter Chernin is still keeping his cards close to his vest about his post-News Corp. plans but dismissed speculation he was headed to Viacom.

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“Nothing, no conversations,” he said when asked about rumors that he would trade one aging mogul -- Rupert Murdoch -- for another in Viacom’s Redstone.

When asked during the panel about his future plans by moderator Peter Bart, the editorial director of Variety, he said he was interested in staying involved with content, whether it was producing movies and television shows or launching a new cable channel.

Chernin still has two months before he leaves his post as president and chief operating officer of News Corp.

One headache Chernin will no longer have to deal with is MySpace. Jon Miller, the new chairman and chief executive of the News Corp. Digital Media Conference, said it was fair to say the social networking site has lost buzz. But he doesn’t think a turnaround is out of reach.

“The immediate stuff is to focus on the organization and get it moving under the new folks,” he said after the panel. That sounds like code for figuring out who at MySpace is with the new team and who isn’t.*

Ever wonder why Starbucks went all Eurotrash on coffee lovers, who place orders in sizes tall (12 ounces), grande (16 ounces) and venti (20 or 24 ounces)?

For years, Starbucks customers have pondered the matter. Listening to Starbucks executive Michelle Gass explain it, they can still ponder.

One audience member braved the question: Why the tall, grande and venti?

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“Well, is it interesting . . . ?” Gass responded cryptically of the standard designations of small, medium and large.

Starbucks’ executive vice president of marketing and category spoke to an audience of about 150 at a panel on effective marketing and persuading skittish consumers to spend.

As her fellow speakers advised humility and consumer-centric practices, Gass urged businesses to connect with customers on a personal level and to take risks.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “If you make mistakes, you can pick yourself right back up.”

Same goes for consumers, she said. “Amid all the doom and gloom out there, one can feel guilty about getting a haircut or a Starbucks,” she said. But it’s $1.60. It’s not $5,000.”

Meanwhile, 960 miles to the north in Seattle, Starbucks announced that net income for the quarter that ended March 31 fell 77% to $25 million.


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