Sumner Redstone Tells Viacom Shareholders: 'Reports of My Absence From This Meeting Have Been Greatly Exaggerated'

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UPDATED: The 88-year-old executive chairman and controlling shareholder, appearing only briefly before being shrouded by a curtain, made good on his promise to attend the annual meeting in New York.

NEW YORK - Viacom executive chairman and controlling shareholder Sumner Redstone opened the entertainment company's annual shareholder meeting here on Thursday by joking about the controversy that his planned absence from the meeting had caused. 

"To paraphrase my very good friend Mark Twain," who, he quipped, could't be here, "the reports of my absence from this meeting have been greatly exaggerated," Redstone said after welcoming the meeting at Viacom's corporate headquarters in Manhattan's Times Square. A curtain opened at the start of the meeting to reveal Redstone sitting at a desk on a stage flanked by president and CEO Philippe Dauman and general counsel Michael Fricklas.

"We still believe content is king," Redstone said, adding that his team has been "pleased" with the company's financials and progress. He once again vowed that there would be "even better, brighter days ahead."

The chairman, who attended a regularly scheduled board meeting after the shareholder gathering, didn't speak beyond his opening comments, leaving the lead to CEO Dauman as he has typically done in recent years. Redstone didn't get any questions about his health or level of involvement at the company, and he didn't jump in during the question-and-answer session as he has at times done in the past. Redstone also wasn't available for questions after the meeting as the curtain closed right after the meeting finished, with only Dauman briefly greeting reporters on his way to the board meeting.

Redstone has in recent years reduced his public involvement in Viacom and CBS Corp., where he holds the same roles, to brief comments on earnings conference calls and the annual meetings. He was originally expected to miss the Viacom meeting for the first time in memory due to what a spokesman at the time said was "an unavoidable conflict," which wasn't specified. After an outcry, the spokesman said last week that Redstone "was able to change his commitment."

The Wall Street Journal said Thursday that if Redstone had missed the annual meeting, it would have been the first time in at least 18 years. Shareholders and corporate governance experts see the annual meetings as rare opportunities for questions for and interactions with top executives, even if most decisions at the meetings are more technical in nature.

The crowded shareholder meeting with more than 100 people - including shareholders, employees and board members - ran for only about 45 minutes.

Among other big Viacom names at the annual meeting included Dauman, who followed Redstone's opening remarks by giving an overview of the company's strong latest fiscal year, and various board members, including Redstone daughter and vice chair Shari Redstone, as well as BET boss Debra Lee and other key executives. Paramount head Brad Grey was in LA, according to a spokesman.

Dauman in a presentation about the past fiscal year lauded Viacom's "outstanding performance." He also said that "we are relentless" when it comes to knowing our audiences and serving them and "we remain obsessively committed - yes Sumner, I said obsessively committed" to creating shareholder value via strong content and strong financials. 

Dauman also lauded Paramount Pictures, which is celebrating its 100th birthday as the oldest Hollywood studio, for leading the U.S. box office ranking last year and bringing home Academy Awards for Hugo and Rango. The studio will this summer release a Katy Perry ‪3D concert movie called Katy Perry: Part Of Me, the CEO said following a sizzle reel of hit shows and films that used her song with that title.

Dauman engaged in some more celebrity name-dropping during the meeting. Mentioning hit show Jersey Shore, he said that fans will be looking forward to new episodes "as we celebrate Snooki's recent engagement." He also said that Paramount will this year release Sacha Baron Cohen's The Dictator, quipping that Oscar telecast viewers may have seen him on the red carpet "doing a little bit of guerilla marketing."

The biggest laugh of the meeting came when a female shareholder said that Timothy Olyphant "is a very, very hot actor." She suggested that the Justified star "would be good for Paramount" - and nice to look at. "I will pass that on to Brad [Grey]," Dauman replied, before adding: "By the way: [21 Jump Street and G.I. Joe: Retaliation star] Channing Tatum is a pretty good looking actor, too."

Asked about Paramount's relationship with Steven Spielberg, Dauman said he is "a great friend of both of ours," a reference to Grey, and the executive producer of the Transformers franchise. Plus, the partners regularly talk about current or possible future projects, Dauman added.

Otherwise, Dauman said that "our continued investment in content keeps our brands consistenly vibrant." And he said "we are working on the future of media" by focusing on moving content across platforms in a seamless way. "Social media is key" in the digital age, and international expansion remains "a top priority" for Viacom, he also told shareholders. For example, the company will launch a Paramount channel in Spain later this month, with more such channels planned in additional foreign markets, Dauman said. 


Twitter: @georgszalai