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
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 and, 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.

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