The CBS-Viacom merger

Putting the sin back in television synergy.

Topics: CBS, MTV,

For the past several weeks, newspaper and magazine readers have seen photos of various rock stars in the guise of characters from the world’s most revered operas –
Madonna as Bellini’s Norma, David Bowie as Mephistopheles. They’re meant to hype Thursday’s MTV Video
Music Awards, to be broadcast from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. In the wake of Tuesday’s
announced merger of Viacom (the parent company of MTV) and CBS, I expected to see a period portrait of
Viacom chief Sumner Redstone and CBS’s Mel Karmazin in full opera drag as Tristan and Isolde, enacting
Wagner’s frenzied telegram duet (“Isolde! Geliebte!” “Tristan! Geliebter! Bist du mein?”) after sharing a
bottle of love potion number nine.

According to accounts published in the Wall Street
Journal
and elsewhere, this marriage made in merger heaven began, as so many romances do, over a
simple lunch a few weeks ago. There, Karmazin proposed that CBS buy Viacom and its holdings, claiming a
better track record with programming. To which Redstone made like Moe Green when faced with a similar
offer by Michael Corleone: “You don’t buy me out; I buy you out.”

Many romances have begun more auspiciously, though in this deal, unlike some others, it really doesn’t
much matter who ends up on top. As industry analysts were quick to point out, it’s the size of this merger
that matters. The new company’s combined assets will include the cable networks MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon,
TNN, Showtime and Comedy Central; the Infinity Broadcasting Company (radio and outdoor
media); Paramount Pictures; Simon & Schuster; Blockbuster Video; a number of heavily trafficked Web
sites (including CBS Marketwatch.com and Sportsline.com, as well as SonicNet and MTV’s own popular
site); CBS Television (last year’s most watched broadcast network); and a host of production and
syndication companies, cable and broadcast. Viacom (as the new company will be known) puts the “sin” back in
“synergy” and is sure to make Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. sit up and say howdy.



Less commented on was the youth factor. While CBS has made a strong comeback under Karmazin (after the
disastrous dime-store days of former head and skinflint Lawrence Tisch), its audience — and identity — is
old and getting older. Returning programs this year include “Cosby,” “Walker, Texas Ranger,” “Chicago
Hope” and “60 Minutes” (a show so old they still use a watch that ticks). Youth may be overrated (I
can’t remember) and the nation’s current infatuation with sirens like Britney Spears (who appears in the
MTV ads dressed as Violeta in “La Traviata”) may wane in the millennium, but the cachet of the company
that brought us “Ren & Stimpy” and “Beavis and Butt-head” must have spoken to Karmazin, a man who made
his bones on radio. It is odd that Redstone, who at age 76 pre-dates not only cable but television and has a
rug so bad it makes Marv Albert’s look lifelike, should play puer aeternus in this, blowing ganja
smoke in CBS’s reddened eye.

Not that anyone thinks Viacom’s hep. After all, the entertainment company is best known on the Web
as the dark force that shut down the Trekkies. But
with his something-for-everybody cable-music solution (video killed real country music as surely as it did
in that radio star), his aggressive pursuit of Paramount (Barry Diller’s still smarting over that one), and
his willingness to spin off a brand name like Blockbuster, Redstone looks like he’s been dipping into the
Viagra. And with Karmazin, a mere 56, as second in command of the new company and its heir apparent,
he has rendered any questions of what-happens-when moot.

The deal has to have federal approval, of course, and shareholders of both companies may have something
to say about the merger. But the FCC has been in a generous mood of late — its recent decision to allow
companies to own more than one TV station in a market is what caused all this woo to be pitched in the first
place. And the stock swap, though complicated, seems pretty equitable. I had always thought that in the
next millennium everyone in media would end up working for one of about eight guys. With this new
marriage of men and money, the number is reduced by one. And though Tristan dies a rather painful death in
Wagner’s opera, his praises are sung most memorably by his lover, who catches all the bouquets.

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>