Freston skewered, praised at N.Y. roast
NEW YORK -- "No one went away from Viacom that rich since Dave Chappelle," MTV Networks' chief Judy McGrath joked Wednesday about her former boss during a rollicking but affectionate roast of recently ousted Viacom president and CEO Tom Freston as part of the Center for Communication's annual Frank Stanton Award luncheon.
In addition to McGrath, those getting a few gentle jabs in at Freston included News Corp. president Peter Chernin, BET Networks chairman Debra Lee and Stephen Colbert, star of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." There was no shortage of ribbing delivered about the size of Freston's severance package, which Viacom disclosed last week was worth more than $60 million (HR 10/19).
Visibly moved, Freston told the audience in a packed ballroom at the Pierre hotel that he hasn't decided what the next step in his career will be.
"I'm taking my time," he told the packed ballroom, where the crowd included new Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman, CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves, News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and wife Wendi, the Weinstein Co.'s Harvey Weinstein, Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer, producer Russell Simmons, MTVN president and chief operating officer Michael Wolf, New York City film commissioner Katherine Oliver and Center for Communication chairman Richard Bressler. "But I got my creative juices flowing already," Freston said.
He said he hopes that any future professional challenge will be "as exciting as the last." He thanked former colleagues at MTV Networks, saying that "nothing will ever change the good feelings I have for Viacom."
Talk about Freston's future has been rampant in media circles, with most major media conglomerates and various private equity, music, TV and other companies having been named as possibly being interested in his services.
Freston joked that while Lee used to work for him, "I hope one day she will return the favor."
Freston had the audience in stitches when revealing that he has spent time catching up with the digital revolution that has swept the entertainment industry and recently joined MySpace, a pointed comment given that Freston was publicly criticized by his former boss Sumner Redstone for not moving quickly enough to acquire the site last year before News Corp. snapped it up. Freston popped open a video message from Murdoch welcoming him to the social-networking site, drawing more laughs.
Freston also earned cheers by disclosing that his MySpace user name was "Lazyboi" and that his circle of friends included "BedBath & Biondi" (referring to former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi) and "Spa Boy" Gerald Levin, the former Time Warner chief. He showed a video blog of himself silently eating a sandwich.
Freston earned a standing ovation with a music video showing him lip-synching and dancing to Daniel Powter's "Bad Day," including a sequence that showed him sitting in a corner wearing a New York Yankees knit cap and apparently mulling the state of the universe.
McGrath lauded Freston as "a boss and a buddy" and showed some old photos of him. Lee noted that while Freston had a network launch in New Jersey early in his career, he could now -- thanks to his severance -- buy New Jersey.
The roast by longtime friend Chernin earned rave reviews for some edgy material. "There's not a single person in this room who thinks Viacom treated Tom fairly," Chernin began. "His continued success will continue to haunt Viacom for years to come. But enough about Tom Cruise. ..."
Chernin then argued that it is difficult to roast "someone who is already toast." He also pointed out that Freston got "screwed over by a man who is so old he had to take a blue pill to do it," adding, "There goes my Viacom career."
He also showed Freston's MySpace page -- with Redstone being a blocked user -- and said MTV now stands for "Moonves Takes Viacom."
Chernin closed by lauding Freston as "a true class act -- something that is getting harder and harder to find in this business."
Colbert remembered how MTV led to his sexual awakening. "I was 26 -- too young," he quipped.
He also joked that Freston created Logo -- "the first network for gays besides Bravo."
For making MTV a "global culture-crushing behemoth," Colbert handed Freston an award for cultural imperialism. But he added: "What's awful in America is great when we do it to (other countries). The more Taliban (members) imitate stunts on 'Jackass,' the better."
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