Never mind the Murdochs, the drama behind Network 10’s owners is just as remarkable

Network 10 ought to not look far for its next hit show. The battle for control of its parent company, now called Paramount, is cinematic in sweep, lurid in detail and has already inspired HBO’s Succession.

The Redstone family dynasty begins with Sumner, a Harvard University-educated World War II code breaker who parlayed a pair of cinemas into a multiplex business and then the control of a host of US entertainment assets that made him one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Via a family firm called National Amusements, he owned the Paramount movie business, CBS television network, DreamWorks and Nickelodeon animation studios, and MTV.

Sumner Redstone in his later years with former girlfriend Manuela Herzer (left).Credit:David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via AP Images

But the waning years of Sumner’s life, chronicled by New York Times media columnist James Stewart and reporter Rachel Abrams in a new book called Unscripted, are a portrait of how a domineering media mogul can hang on too long, being vicious to those around him and mistreated in turn. It is also a study in the lecherous behaviour of Hollywood persisting deep into the 2010s.

Throughout his life, Sumner repeatedly dismissed the business acumen of his daughter, Shari Redstone, while trusting an almost all-male group to run his empire day-to-day.

At home, he was chasing a bevy of much younger women. He would sometimes play the doting father figure or older, refined gent as he tried to woo a mistress. Or he would bully women into relationships with a mixture of money, the lure of jobs within his media empire, and abusive language.

“I hear women like to be spanked,” he once told a flight attendant. “Do you like to be spanked?” he asked, before joking about sexual harassment claims.

The sexual character of these relationships is unclear as Sumner aged into his nineties and developed substantial movement and speech issues, but the parade of women who came and went from his mansion was constant.

Two are most prominent: Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer. The pair of middle-aged women were both in a relationship with Sumner at one time or another and forged an alliance to become his live-in companions. Unscripted contains allegations they cut him off from his family as Sumner signed tens of millions over to them, assisted by his lawyers and functionaries, and his health worsened.

They were forced out only after Sumner found out about Holland’s relationship with another man (despite his own infidelity, he was deeply possessive of his partners) and Herzer allegedly denied him the attention of another woman. Both denied various claims against them and argued they only wanted the best for Sumner, who died in 2020, but the rift put Shari back in the frame.

The sordid saga would be of no relevance if not for the fact that throughout this period Sumner was still among the most powerful men in American media.

And his companies were not working well. Viacom, which owned the movie studios, was faltering in the face of Netflix and was late to the streaming game. CBS, the television network, had hit shows but its chief executive Leslie Moonves was pushed out after the New Yorker published claims he displayed a pattern of allegedly harassing and assaulting women. Moonves denied the claims forcefully and was never sued over the allegations.

Shari had won at last. And somewhere in her empire is now Australia’s Network 10. Before it went into administration in 2017, it had been backed by another Succession muse: Lachlan Murdoch. With Shari signalling she would sell Paramount for the right price, the channel may once again be part of the spoils of another media battle.

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