Cable's Redstone aims to go global with kid-vids

April 13, 1993|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Sumner Redstone is America's hippest grandfather, the old guy who knows what young people like. Now he wants to play that role around the world.

As he approaches his 70th birthday, Mr. Redstone is trying to spread his two youth-oriented cable networks, MTV and Nickelodeon, to the four corners of the globe.

MTV, the music video channel, is seen in 77 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and will soon be seen in Latin America. Nickelodeon, which specializes in children's shows, is set to debut in Europe.

"Our mission is to stay on the cutting edge of everything," Mr. Redstone told reporters recently.

Mr. Redstone is the richest man in Massachusetts, having an estimated worth of more than $3 billion.

He is chairman of Viacom, a diversified entertainment company that owns cable systems, television stations, radio stations and two film channels, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Viacom also owns the syndication rights to "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne." But it is the kid-vid networks, MTV and Nickelodeon, that have the greatest potential for growth. Mr. Redstone speaks about them as a proud grandfather bragging about the accomplishments of his grandchildren.

MTV is seen in 215 million homes, an astounding 25 percent of all television screens around the world. Its potential audience is far larger than the better-known CNN. Overseas, MTV plays music videos from the host countries, "so people don't think of us as some imperialist American import," said Tom Freston, chairman of MTV Networks.

In this country, MTV moved into the realm of politics last fall with extensive coverage of the presidential campaign. President Clinton, according to Mr. Redstone, credits his MTV interview with helping him to win.

Nickelodeon is a big hit with the 2- to 15-year-old set. It features a mix of reruns like "Mr Ed" and original cartoons, soap operas and game shows. It will move to England this fall and then to continental Europe.

Mr. Redstone has the entertainment business in his genes. His father owned movie theaters, and Mr. Redstone is credited with building the first multiplex movie theater. But by the mid-1980s he could see that the movie theaters had a limited future. Growth was coming mainly from higher ticket prices; attendance was flat. "That notion is what brought me to Viacom," he said. "My instinct was that Viacom was at the cutting edge of the revolution in home entertainment."

Mr. Redstone's instincts were probably better than even he imagined. Since he acquired the company in 1987, Viacom has thrived. Revenue has climbed from $1.1 billion in 1988 to $1.8 billion last year.

Earnings have risen steadily, despite the huge debt load Mr. Redstone took on when he acquired the company.


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