IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Sumner Redstone built a media empire. Now, its future is uncertain.

Redstone built one of the world's biggest media conglomerates with the help of cable TV. Now, his company is trying to navigate the world of streaming media.
Sumner Redstone, Shari Ellin Redstone
Sumner Redstone, with his daughter, Shari Redstone, at a luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2012.Todd Williamson / Invision for LA friendly House/AP Images file

Sumner Redstone, the famously ambitious and ruthless media titan who often claimed he would never die, lived long enough to build one of the world's biggest media conglomerates out of a chain of theaters, spark a power struggle that dominated tabloid headlines for years, and eventually see his daughter consolidate power in the midst of a rapidly changing media landscape.

The future of that company, ViacomCBS, remains in flux. Had Redstone, who died Wednesday at the age of 97, lived a few years longer, he may have witnessed his daughter's attempt to sell the family empire — something he once swore would never happen.

Shari Redstone, Sumner's daughter who was estranged from her father for much of his life but reconciled with him in his final years, effectively took over his empire in 2016 after a long, drawn-out legal battle against the backdrop of Sumner's deteriorating health and revelations about his sexual affairs.

The years since have been tough for ViacomCBS. The media empire, once worth as much as $80 billion, was valued at roughly $30 billion when Redstone merged Viacom and CBS last year. Today, it is worth just $16 billion, and ViacomCBS is drowning under a massive pile of debt: nearly $19 billion as of last year.

In a media landscape dominated by the likes of Disney (with $236 billion in market value), AT&T ($215 billion) and Comcast ($198 billion), not to mention the all-powerful tech giants in Silicon Valley and Seattle, ViacomCBS now appears to be a relative minnow. Its longtime strengths, which include a robust television advertising business, may soon be a liability, as pay TV subscriptions continue to decline.

Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

A ViacomCBS spokesperson referred an inquiry for comment to representatives for Redstone and National Amusements, the Redstone family holding company. Those representatives declined to comment.

That Shari Redstone will eventually look to sell ViacomCBS has become conventional wisdom among Hollywood executives. Sumner's death does little to change that. The 80 percent of ViacomCBS owned by National Amusements will now transfer to a seven-person trust that includes Shari and is firmly in lockstep with her ambitions, according to sources familiar with the trust members' thinking who were not authorized to speak publicly.

In order to position ViacomCBS for a sale, however, Redstone will first need to demonstrate that it is an asset worth buying.

Redstone, ViacomCBS chief executive Bob Bakish and members of the board believe the company's stock is significantly undervalued, and their stated goal over the next few years is to maximize potential value through investments in streaming and digital, as well as an estimated $800 million in savings brought on by the merger.

Several market analysts share that view.

"We continue to believe the market is assigning immaterial value to VIAC’s streaming and digital business, with upcoming product enhancements and launches potential positive catalysts," Goldman Sachs said in its guidance this month following the company's quarterly earnings report.

Streaming has indeed been a bright spot for ViacomCBS. While overall revenue fell 12 percent year-over-year in the last quarter, digital and streaming revenues grew 25 percent. The company's free streaming platform, Pluto TV, logged growth of 61 percent in its monthly average user base while subscriptions to CBS Access and Showtime grew by 74 percent.

The company also makes money by licensing its content to other services, like "South Park" (to HBO Max) and "Yellowstone" (to NBC's Peacock).

"We are very focused on maximizing the value of all of our assets," Shari Redstone said in an interview last year with the media banker Aryeh Bourkoff. "We want to be everywhere where the consumer is. We want to bring our brands to the largest addressable market."

Still, Redstone may need to do some more buying before she can put ViacomCBS in a position to sell. And as NBC News reported last year, she is pursuing acquisitions to grow the company further.

"I think she is more buyer than seller," said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst and partner at Light Shed, a technology and media research firm.

And what might she buy? There are any number of smaller businesses that could be on the table, from Discovery and LionsGate to MGM and AMC. None of those acquisitions would give ViacomCBS the heft to compete with the likes of Disney and Comcast, but they might make it a more appealing acquisition target for someone else.

Alternatively, that "someone else" might recognize ViacomCBS' potential value now, swoop in early and convince Redstone to sell the company for a price that recognizes what she believes is its true value.