The markets are betting that the legal battle over seats on the trust that will oversee Sumner Redstone’s holdings will spell doom for Viacom Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Philippe Dauman.
Shares of Viacom shot up 14 percent in the wake of 93-year-old Redstone’s May 20 announcement that he had removed Dauman and Viacom board member George Abrams from the trust that will oversee his holdings when he dies or becomes incapacitated. The stock, which had been trading around $42 a share prior to the announcement, has been above $48 ever since, even as Dauman and Abrams filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts probate court on May 23 alleging they were removed because of “undue influence” from the mogul’s daughter, Shari Redstone, citing a “lack of capacity to take these steps.”
Terrence Oved, an entertainment attorney at Oved & Oved in New York, said Dauman faces an uphill battle.
“National Amusements’ voting control over Viacom allows Sumner Redstone, as the controlling stockholder, virtual carte blanche over such matters as removal and appointment of Viacom’s directors,” he said.
National Amusements controls 80 percent of the stock in both Viacom and CBS Corp., and Redstone holds an 80 percent stake in the holding company. Shari Redstone controls the balance in National Amusements. The trust was set up to protect the senior Redstone’s stakes in Viacom and CBS.
Redstone removed Dauman and Abrams from National Amusements’ board the same day they were removed from the trust.
Legal experts say this courtroom battle could take longer than the other recent battle for influence in the ailing mogul’s empire.
Manuela Herzer, Redstone’s former girlfriend, saw her fight to be reinstated as his health care agent last just a few days before it was dismissed by Judge David Cowan. Dauman, who supported Redstone in his successful defense in the competency lawsuit filed by Herzer, has shifted course to argue that he is not competent in the wake of the decision over the trust.
Last week, Redstone’s granddaughter Keryn Redstone, 34, said she would be joining the directors in legal action “to liberate my grandfather from Shari’s clutches and protect my fellow trust beneficiaries and myself from her machinations.” It was unclear whether she would join the lawsuit brought by Dauman or bring her own suit. She is listed as a nominal defendant on the Dauman suit since she and Redstone’s other grandchildren are beneficiaries of the trust.
A hearing has been scheduled for June 7.
Viacom is the parent of TV networks Nickelodeon, MTV, and Comedy Central, among others, yet its crown jewel, Paramount Pictures, sits at the center of the drama. Shortly after Dauman became chairman in February he said Viacom would offer a minority stake in Paramount, a move that also seemed to appease investors.
However, a Redstone spokesman said in May that Redstone disagreed with Dauman’s decision and that he “continues to believe Paramount Pictures should remain wholly owned by the parent company,” according to a statement.
Still, the prospect of unlocking the value of Viacom’s assets separately is appealing to some analysts and investors.
“The sale of Paramount could be quite valuable to shareholders,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale University’s School of Management. “The breakup value of what I call a ‘monarch’s’ empire like Redstone’s can be quite significant. Other pieces, such as cable broadcasting, could be revived under CBS management.”
Indeed, there is an expectation that once the smoke clears, Viacom will emerge stronger: Zacks Investment Research issued a “hold” rating on its stock for the next one to three months, indicating an anticipated 10 percent annualized return.
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