Once Dismissed as a Lightweight, Shari Redstone Is Now the Most Powerful Woman in Town

Sumner Redstone’s determined daughter clawed back control of his dynasty with her long-dreamed merger of CBS and Viacom

She finally won. For Shari Redstone, the 65-year-old daughter of ailing 96-year-old mogul Sumner Redstone, who had chafed for a dozen years living under the cloud of her father’s arrogant, often public contempt, this week’s announcement of a merger of Viacom and CBS was the culmination of a longtime dream.

In the merger, CBS will acquire Viacom to create a new $30 billion company to be called ViacomCBS, with Bob Bakish, the current CEO of Viacom, becoming the CEO of combined enterprise. Redstone will serve as the corporation’s Chairman of the Board.

The new company combines a broad set of well-known properties including CBS—currently the top-rated broadcast TV network—Showtime, Simon & Schuster, MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Paramount Pictures. After Shari tried and failed to advance a similar deal twice before, the merger marks a stunning reversal of fortunes for her and her rivals inside and outside the family.

A slight, divorced single mother, grandmother, and Orthodox Jew, Redstone has always been a strange fit in Hollywood. Early in her career at the company, many dismissed her as a featherweight who had won her job by nepotism and was headed to a swift demise. But in the end she deftly vanquished a host of more-polished and better-connected antagonists who had gotten in the way of her control of CBS and Viacom.

Though not as bombastic or charismatic as her hard-driving father, Redstone learned the business first-hand by watching Sumner conquer first the movie theater industry and then Hollywood.

“She’s very much Sumner’s  daughter,” says a source who’s done business with Shari. “She’s tough as nails. But there’s also a soft side to her. She’s very family oriented, just a nice Jewish girl, but really tough.”

“She’s very family oriented, just a nice Jewish girl, but really tough.”

Soon after gaining voting control over her father’s majority interest in CBS and Viacom in 2015, Shari quickly moved to reunite the company. Amid the shift to digital and streaming media and industry consolidations such as AT&T-Warner and Disney-Fox, she believed the company had to get much bigger if it was to remain relevant in the media space. Then-CBS chairman Les Moonves wanted nothing to do with a merger, which he feared would limit his clout and distract him from the company’s core business. But despite his vocal opposition, Shari decided to proceed anyway.

“She always comes prepared,” says a Los Angeles lawyer who has faced off with her in the past. “She’s cunning, she’s calculated. She knows what she wants, and she seems to know how to get it.”

Despite her growing footprint in Hollywood, Shari primarily resides in Massachusetts and New York, and she remains a relatively unknown presence here. While her new role has made her the most powerful woman in the history of the industry, she purposely keeps a very low profile tending to her many business and charitable responsibilities.

Unlike Sumner, who generally spurned religion, Shari is an observant Jew who adheres strictly to Kashrut law and the Sabbath. She often brings her own bagged lunch to business meetings, complete with plastic utensils, and is rarely spotted at Hollywood restaurants unless she’s there on business. For years she was married to Itzhak Aharon (Ira) Korff, a Boston-based Orthodox rabbi who is the father of her three children. Though Sumner was against their marriage at the start, he soon grew fond of Korff, who went on to work for him as a top executive in his company, National Amusements. When the couple divorced in 1992, Sumner complained bitterly about losing Korff as an employee.

Shari’s strict adherence to Jewish law has at times conflicted with her duties as an executive, says Gary Snyder, her cousin and Sumner’s nephew.

“A common issue had to do with Shari’s refusal to accept telephone calls, or anything from the outside, on the Sabbath,” says Snyder. Snyder questions how Shari can be observant and be a mogul. “The strict tenants of Shari’s faith are totally incompatible with her new role,” says Snyder, who says Shari’s devout demeanor masks a ruthlessness that has successfully hobbled many of her unsuspecting opponents.

An attorney who encountered her in court says: “It’s hard to be up against someone who is also influential, who has deep, deep, deep media contacts and relationships.”

Indeed, one of the key questions that lingers in the wake of Shari’s ascension is how sexual harassment allegations about Les Moonves from two decades ago suddenly went public at the very moment his relationship with Shari had soured. Did someone tip off The New York Times in fall 2017 and later Ronan Farrow of The New Yorker for the #MeToo stories that forced Moonves to depart CBS under a cloud?

Shari is adamant that she had nothing to do with leaking the sexual harassment charges against Moonves, which gave her added leverage in her campaign to dismiss him from his perch. “The malicious insinuation that Ms. Redstone is somehow behind the allegations of inappropriate personal behavior by Mr. Moonves…is false and self-serving,” a Redstone rep told the Wrap. But Shari’s detractors continue to insist that if she didn’t personally leak the damaging information, they suggest it was leaked by Redstone’s lawyer, Robert N. Klieger, who is expected to also be a board member and play an important role at the new company.

Trained as a lawyer herself, with children who are also lawyers, Shari is known for thoroughly vetting potential opponents. As her battles with Moonves intensified, sources say, she hired a security firm to investigate the powerful CBS chairman and leaked their findings to the press.

“Les was set up by her,” claims a close friend of Moonves. “She couldn’t think of a way to get rid of him. So, she went after him on sexual harassment.”

The New York Times had the Moonves story a long time before, and so did Ronan Farrow,” adds another Moonves ally. “Nobody was running with the story. Then all of a sudden, the shit hits the fan and all these articles come out.”

Now Shari Redstone has pulled off a signature deal that she hopes will lead to a profitable sale of the company that her father painstakingly built.

“Shari remembers not to forget and not forgive,” says Snyder of his cousin. Snyder describes himself an advisor on western media and culture, but has no ties to National Amusements or other Redstone businesses. He has what he admits is a “strained” relationship with Shari, whom he rarely sees. He is not expected to be among the family members who will share in the $5 billion-plus estate when Sumner dies.

Snyder did show concern for his uncle when he filed an “elder abuse report” in December 2018 in a court case in which Shari made claims against two women who lived with Sumner, and got millions from him.  Shari settled cases with both women without getting much back.

Snyder charges she settled that case, and with former Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, at least in part to avoid questions about Sumner’s mental capacity (he exists in a near vegetative state but has never been declared incompetent).

“Shari ascended to her father’s position without people questioning his cognitive functions and capacity to place her there when he was, in fact, slightly more responsive than a turnip,” Snyder says.

Now Shari Redstone has pulled off a signature deal that she hopes will lead to a profitable sale of the company that her father painstakingly built.

Prior to this long-sought accomplishment, she refused to step into Sumner’s shoes as board chairman, preferring to remain vice chair of CBS and Viacom. But as CBS closes its acquisition of Viacom, Shari will finally take her seat for the first time as chairman of the board of the combined company. Like her or hate her, it’s an impressive achievement for a woman who has been underestimated for much of her career.

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