New York Roast Puts Freston on the Spit

Oct 25, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Since being canned by Viacom for not developing the company’s broadband strategy aggressively enough, Tom Freston has been working on his “personal digital strategy” and creating videos for his own MySpace.com page.

At least that’s what Mr. Freston said during a lunchtime tribute and roast Wednesday in New York. Mr. Freston agreed to be honored by the Center for Communications while he was still CEO of Viacom, and opted to go through with the event despite being deposed, giving many of his longtime colleagues and competitors an opportunity to lovingly lambaste the eternally youthful executive.

Upon taking the stage, Mr. Freston said he had finally bought a computer, something he’d “never gotten around to” at Viacom. While “swimming the Internet,” he said he’d found some “amazing stuff,” and urged people to check out a site called MySpace.com.

Mr. Freston whipped out his Apple notebook and displayed his MySpace page, where he calls himself a variation of “lazyboi.” The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” played in the background, and his “friends” included other media executives, including several who got rich by leaving Viacom, including Frank Biondi and Mel Karmazin.

“While you guys were at Michael’s living large, I was home creating content,” Mr. Freston said. He showed a video blog he’d made detailing what he ate for lunch: He sat at his kitchen table slowly consuming a PB&J and washing it down with milk.

Mr. Freston also premiered a music video, lip-synching to Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day.”

“User-generated content is going to replace what we know of today as television programming,” Mr. Freston said. “Who’s going to need big media?”

He thanked his friends for coming, and said that while his leaving Viacom was a surprise, he felt his creative juices are flowing. “This is a great moment to be a free agent in media’s new world order,” He said.

Then he said he had to go: “If I don’t leave now, I’ll never get a seat at Starbucks.”

The crowd crammed into a ballroom at the Pierre Hotel included most of the senior executives of Viacom, and even Mr. Freston’s replacement, Philippe Dauman. Before the lunch, Mr. Dauman said he was “having fun” at the event, and didn’t feel at all awkward at an event honoring his predecessor.

Also in the crowd were senior News Corp. executives, led by Chairman Rupert Murdoch; and a CBS Corp. group headed by CEO Les Moonves.

Mr. Freston was roasted by News Corp. Chief Operating Peter Chernin.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks Viacom treated Tom fairly. Tom’s continued success will haunt Viacom for years,” Mr. Chernin said. “But enough about Tom Cruise. We’re actually here to talk about Tom Freston, and Tom Freston is an asshole.”

He added that it was difficult for Mr. Freston to be “screwed over by a guy so old he needed a little blue pill to do it,” referring to Viacom’s octogenarian chairman, Sumner Redstone. “I guess there goes my Viacom career,” he added.

Mr. Chernin also showed a picture of Mr. Freston with his trademark spiky hairdo and asked how he gets it to do that. He offered his own theory by showing a picture of Cameron Diaz from the film “There’s Something About Mary.”

Mr. Chernin “accidentally” showed several slides showing MySpace’s growth after it was snatched from Mr. Freston’s grasp at Viacom by News Corp., much to the chagrin of Mr. Redstone.

Also toasting Mr. Freston were Debra Lee, CEO of BET; and Judy McGrath, CEO of MTV Networks, who noted the recent interest in “Tom’s package,” and also about his severance. She called her longtime boss and colleague “the most successful man I know.”

Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert congratulated Mr. Freston for ruining America’s youth and economy by creating the MTV generation. But Mr. Colbert also saluted Mr. Freston for exporting MTV abroad. “What’s awful in America is fantastic when we do it to foreign countries,” he said, delighting in the idea that members of the Taliban might be attempting stunts from “Jackass.”

After the tribute, Mr. Murdoch was asked if News Corp. would be interested in hiring Mr. Freston. “If we had an opening, we’d do it in a minute,” Mr. Murdoch said.

For his part, Mr. Freston said he had no firm plans for the future. “I’m hanging out. Traveling. Letting things come into focus,” he said.