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Frank Biondi Jr., former head of Viacom and Universal Studios, dies at 74

Frank Biondi Jr.
Frank Biondi Jr., former chief executive of Viacom, takes questions during a 2001 news conference to announce a new cable network, the Tennis Channel.
(Beth A. Keiser / Associated Press)

Frank Biondi Jr., who helped shape the modern-day media industry while managing companies such as Viacom, Universal Studios and HBO, died early Monday.

Biondi, who was 74, died of bladder cancer at his home in Los Angeles, his daughter Jane Biondi Munna told The Times.

A highly regarded businessman, Biondi helped build HBO and Viacom into formidable entertainment companies and oversaw some of the most popular media brands, including MTV, Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures, during the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as chairman and chief executive of Universal Studios in the late 1990s.

Biondi was a razor-sharp and low-key business executive who could negotiate a complex merger but was also known for his unflappable and straightforward demeanor, which was often in sharp contrast to the sometimes irascible personalities he worked for.

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“Frank was the most inspirational executive,” said Sherry Lansing, former chief of Paramount Pictures who worked with Biondi at Viacom, on Monday. “He was always, always calm and he handled everything with such dignity. He proved that nice guys can finish first.”

Born in New York in 1945, Biondi grew up in Livingston, N.J. He became a star baseball player, as a pitcher and outfielder, before enrolling at Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1966. Later, armed with an MBA from Harvard, he began his career as a financial analyst on Wall Street.

Biondi then entered the nascent cable television industry, but the market hammered cable stocks in the early 1970s, so he found refuge in a nonprofit called the Children’s Television Workshop. It produced such classics as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”

A colleague at CTW, Carol Oughton, whom Biondi was dating and later wed, had introduced him to a William Morris attorney, Michael Fuchs, who was the architect of HBO. Fuchs offered him the job of head of movie acquisitions for HBO.

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“I thought this was really a silly job, to be honest with you, because you paid 30 cents-40 cents a movie,” Biondi said in a 2000 interview with the industry group now known as the Cable Center. “It sounded like an accountant’s job. So I turned him down. They were mystified. How could I do that?”

But Fuchs persisted, eventually recruiting him to become head of co-productions.

“He was working at the Children’s Television Workshop, as the treasurer or something, and I felt that wasn’t an important enough job for him,” Fuchs said. “At that time, we were doing a lot of acquisitions so he was buying music and concerts from around the world. I once asked him how he liked it, and Frank said: ‘I don’t know. There are no answers in this business.’”

Biondi is credited with helping establish the successful model of a premium subscription channel with boxing and blockbuster Hollywood movies. He became president and chief executive of HBO in 1983 but left the company the following year.

His next assignment was helping Coca-Cola Co. navigate Hollywood. In 1982, the beverage giant had purchased the legendary Columbia Pictures, and Fay Vincent, who later became Major League Baseball commissioner, headed the studio. Biondi, in the Cable Center interview, recalled Vincent telling him: “Coke wants to make [its] entertainment business a lot bigger. Would you come over and help us do that?”

The group acquired Norman Lear’s Embassy Communications and Merv Griffin’s company, which produced “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” Biondi also helped launch Castle Rock Entertainment, a production company that immediately made a splash with “When Harry Met Sally.” That firm was founded by Alan Horn, Martin Shafer, Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman and Glenn Padnick. Like Biondi, Shafer and Scheinman were skilled tennis players, and they bonded over the sport, observed Horn, who now leads Walt Disney Studios.

“Frank was a terrific tennis player and I think half of me thought the only reason that he got the funding for us [at Castle Rock] was because he wanted to play tennis with Martin and Andy,” Horn said in an interview. “I wasn’t good enough to play with them on the court, but I would bring water... He was whip-smart but also a gentleman.”

Biondi is best known for his tenure as president and chief executive of Viacom, the parent company of MTV, Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon. He joined the media giant, controlled by chairman Sumner Redstone, in 1987 soon after Redstone acquired it. During Biondi’s run, Viacom transformed itself from a cable and theater company into an entertainment colossus.

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One of Biondi’s first moves was to install Tom Freston as head of MTV Networks.

In 1989, HBO announced in it was launching a comedy channel, so Freston called Biondi. “I told him that HBO is doing a comedy channel and we should start one too,” Freston said. “So, during a five-minute call we agreed to launch a cable channel with no business plan.”

It would become Comedy Central.

In a 2011 interview with The Times, Biondi recalled that Viacom was poised in the early 1990s to buy NBC, MSNBC and CNBC from General Electric for $850 million. “We were literally driving back from Connecticut and Sumner called and said ... he wanted to buy Paramount instead,” Biondi said.

Redstone emerged from a bruising bidding war with his prize. But the Paramount acquisition, and the purchase of the Blockbuster video chain, left Viacom deeply in debt.

Biondi, known for his facility with numbers, helped Redstone quickly integrate Viacom’s divisions. He was widely described as the even-keeled foil to the sharp-elbowed Redstone. Viacom’s successes included the Oscar-winning film “Braveheart,” the irreverent MTV cartoon “Beavis and Butt-Head” and the TV sitcom “Frasier.”

“If a film fell short of expectations, then Frank would say: ‘Let’s move on, I know you did your best,’” Lansing said.

In 1995, the New Yorker magazine published a flattering profile, calling Biondi: “Redstone’s Secret Weapon.” Freston said the article infuriated Redstone and months later the mogul surprised investors in 1996 by firing his lieutenant, saying he wanted the company to move faster. “Sumner hated to see someone else get credit, even someone who deserved the credit,” Freston said.

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Biondi was immediately hired by Seagram Co. scion Edgar Bronfman Jr. to lead the liquor company’s entertainment enterprise, Universal Studios, formerly known as MCA. However, the entertainment division was struggling with film flops and executive turmoil.

Biondi was pushed out in 1998 amid a broader shakeup. Biondi, at the time, said it was clear Bronfman wanted “to run the business himself.” He exited with a settlement reportedly worth more than $25 million.

Since 1999, Biondi has served as senior managing director of Waterview Advisors and was on the boards of several companies, including Madison Square Garden, AMC Networks and STX Entertainment. He also helped finance the 2001 launch of the Tennis Channel.

Robert Simonds, the head of STX Entertainment, is married to Biondi’s daughter, Anne.

“Anne and I are devastated to lose Frank so young,” Simonds said in a statement. “He was not only an icon and mentor to me, as he was to so many in our industry, he was a noble, kind and beloved father to us and an extraordinary grandfather to our children.”

Biondi is survived by Carol Oughton Biondi, his wife of 45 years, as well as daughters Anne Biondi Simonds and Jane Biondi Munna; and six grandchildren.

“He achieved great success but he never lost sight of the value of family and friends,” Lansing said.


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