Remembering Frank Biondi Jr., the Exec Who Was Viacom’s ‘Secret Weapon’

Cynthia Littleton

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Frank Biondi Jr. was never a flashy CEO. He rarely stood in the spotlight at the media companies he led.

But Biondi, who died Nov. 25 at age 74, was a hugely influential figure for a generation of executives who worked for him at HBO, Columbia Pictures Television, Viacom and Universal Studios.

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Friends and colleagues remember Biondi as a low-key manager who was buttoned up when it came to business but was never afraid to take a gamble on something that had the backing of his top lieutenants.

“He provided a lot of energy and leader­ship for Viacom at a time when we were deep in debt and we were only able to make a few bets to move ourselves forward,” says Tom Freston, a fellow former Viacom CEO and longtime head of MTV Networks.

Sherry Lansing, who headed Paramount Pictures during Biondi’s time at Viacom, recalls an executive who was equal parts brilliant and kind. “He was calm in all
situations,” Lansing says. “He was calm during the bad times, and he was calm — although happy — when we would have a big hit.”

Matt Blank, former Showtime chairman-CEO, first met Biondi when they were working together at Time Inc. and HBO in the late 1970s. It was Biondi who persuaded Blank to move over to Showtime not long after Biondi was recruited by Sumner Redstone to be CEO of Viacom in 1987. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who helped more people and guided the careers of more executives than Frank,” Blank says.

Biondi was a quick study on any given subject, attentive and always accessible, friends and colleagues say. Those qualities made him a strong leader and counterpart to the mercurial Redstone. Biondi had a way of making executives feel that he was rooting for them.

“When you made a call to Frank, he always returned it very quickly, and he always tried to be helpful,” Blank says.

The growth of Viacom on Biondi’s watch attracted attention from the business press. The CEO wound up in the unfamiliar position of being front and center of a New Yorker profile by Ken Auletta, published in January 1995, with the headline “Redstone’s Secret Weapon.” One year later, Redstone would fire Biondi — a decision that Viacom veterans to this day believed was spurred by Redstone’s envy over the praise for Biondi in the pages of The New Yorker.

“It was obvious especially in the early days that Frank was the guy calling the shots and running the show,” Freston says. “Sumner was watching the stock price.”

Biondi was also a role model in how he conducted himself outside the office, starting with his devotion to his family and his wife of 45 years, former ABC executive Carol Oughton.

“He would leave the office at 6 o’clock,” Freston recalls. “He drove a modest car. He did not lead a fancy life in any way. For Frank, it was family first, then Viacom, and then sports. He was a hell of a tennis player.”

Biondi grew up in New Jersey, the son of a Bell Telephone executive. After graduating from Livingston High School in 1962, he earned a BA in psychology from Princeton University in 1966 and an MBA from Harvard in 1968.

His early career included serving as assistant treasurer from 1974 to 1978 at “Sesame Street” producer Children’s Television Workshop. He moved on to Time Inc. as a VP from 1978 to 1984. He took on additional duties as CEO of Time Inc.’s HBO in 1982. Biondi left to become CEO of Coca-Cola Television from 1985 to 1987, during the period when the soft drink giant owned Columbia Pictures.

By the time he landed at Viacom, Biondi had gained experience in virtually every aspect of the media business, from production and distribution to running a pay-TV startup to wheeling and dealing on high-level acquisitions.

Freston cites Biondi’s decision to give the OK to produce original animated series for MTV and Nickelodeon as an example of his leadership style. He did it because he had faith in the team leading the charge. “He believed in MTV and Nickelodeon,” Freston says. “He greenlighted the strategy that led to ‘Rugrats’ and ‘Doug’ and ‘Ren & Stimpy,’ and those animated properties went on to become some of the biggest revenue drivers for all of Viacom.”

Biondi also had a strong competitive streak. Freston recalls persuading Biondi in a three-minute phone call in 1989 to allow Viacom to announce the launch of a comedy-focused cable channel after they learned that HBO was about to announce a comedy cabler. The result, after some twists and turns, was Comedy Central, which remains one of Viacom’s biggest assets.

But at the time, there was no such strategic vision, just a desire to play spoiler to Biondi’s former employer.

“We invented the whole thing that morning,” Freston recalls. “There was no business plan. It was really just meant to foil HBO’s big announcement. The business was much more seat-of-the-pants in those days. Frank was a risk-taker despite the fact that he was also a very buttoned-up guy.”

Biondi faced his share of career ups and downs — after he was ousted at Viacom, he spent about two years as CEO of Universal Studios before the ax fell again amid a broader management shake-up. But he bore no grudges, friends say. He had no trouble keeping business and personal issues distinct in his mind.

“Frank stayed very close to some of the people he worked with over the years,” Blank says. Blank notes that he made a point of reaching out to Biondi earlier this year to get his perspective on a possible business opportunity. His counsel, as ever, was sharp and insightful. “He took great pleasure in seeing [executives] go on to have their own successes,” Blank says. “He always made you feel like you were part of the family.”

Lansing echoes that sentiment. “He was an inspiration to me in how to conduct a meaningful life,” she says. “He valued his wife and his children above all else. He rose to the very top of the entertainment industry, but he never lost sight of what was important in life.”

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