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It has become a staple of reality television for celebrity bosses like Donald Trump and Martha Stewart to appear in a boardroom each week and dismiss one of their desperate underlings with a bit of Broadway swagger.

But those pink-slipping performances pale in comparison to the recent show put on by Sumner Redstone, the billionaire chairman of media companies Viacom and CBS.

Two weeks ago, Mr Redstone shocked Hollywood when he dumped Tom Cruise from Viacom’s Paramount film studio after a 14-year partnership that ranged from Top Gun to Mission: Impossible 3.

Then, on Monday night, Mr Redstone struck again. He called Tom Freston, the chief executive of Viacom and one of the founders of MTV, to his home in Beverly Hills. An hour later, the man who was as much a part of MTV as its quirky logo, was out of a job.

Mr Freston took the fall for Viacom’s failure to close a deal for MySpace, a social networking site that was snapped up by rival News Corp and has since become the centrepiece of its new media strategy. The fact that Mr Redstone is 83 and appeared to be stepping back from the daily command of his media empire made those moves all the more stunning. But perhaps they should not have been.

Like Rupert Murdoch, his 75-year-old rival at News Corp, Mr Redstone exercises like a fiend, is married to a woman roughly half his age, and appears convinced that he is only just entering middle age. “If you guys expect me to leave this earth tomorrow, forget it,” he told the Financial Times this week.

What is more, he has a long record of ousting powerful, well-regarded employees who were once presumed to be successors. (Just ask Frank Biondi and Mel Karmazin.)

Mr Redstone’s well-known obsession with his stock price is one explanation for such abrupt moves. But what many fail to grasp, according to one top studio executive, is Mr Redstone’s fundamental relationship with Viacom. As its majority shareholder, the company belongs to him. “It’s his house, and at the end of the day, they’re just the hired help,” the executive said.

Mr Redstone’s empire began with a family-owned chain of movie theatres and eventually culminated with Viacom’s 1999 merger with CBS - an $80bn deal that was the largest media merger at the time.

Mr Redstone separated the companies this year in a high-profile bid to boost their shares.

Personally, Mr Redstone’s legend has been forged by the hotel fire he survived in 1979 by hanging from a third-story ledge and enduring burns over much of his body. “He’s fearless, and he puts his money where his mouth is,” said Les Moonves, who is now CBS’s chief executive.

While Mr Redstone’s authority is unquestioned, it is unclear whether his involvement will pay dividends as he attempts to adapt his businesses to the digital era - particularly the youth-oriented MTV Networks cable division.

Under Mr Freston, Viacom snapped up a series of smaller gaming and internet video websites as well as trying to develop its own broadband sites. In the shadow of MySpace, they looked more like spare parts to Wall Street than a coherent strategy.

Philippe Dauman, Mr Freston’s replacement, has said that he will not radically change Viacom’s course, but accelerate its pace and make it more entrepreneurial.

“Their biggest challenge is that they need to inject internet DNA into the company,” said Aaron Cohen, chief executive of Bolt.com, a social networking company.

However, there are plenty of risks. In spite of Mr Dauman’s assurances, Wall Street is concerned that Viacom may now over-pay for an internet start-up in order to make up for the loss of MySpace. Another is that in trying to shake up Viacom’s management, Mr Redstone may be killing much of what made the company such a creative force.

Mr Freston oversaw the “I want my MTV” advertising campaign and created a culture that former employees say was unique for its creativity and its stability.

A bit of that was on display on Thursday afternoon, when word slipped out that Mr Freston was leaving the company headquarters and the staff clogged the lobby for a long and tearful goodbye.

Allegiance to Mr Freston clearly runs strong. But one thing remains clear about Viacom: It’s Sumner’s house.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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