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So Long, Corner Office: Viacom CEO Leaves MTV for Bono


Tom Freston was tracked down by U2 frontman to assist in global humanitarian campaigns.

So how exactly does one become Oprah's and Bono's target of interest without a fantastic low-fat pasta salad recipe and a healthy supply of luxury sunglasses? Well, being an affable and influential executive of marketing and television doesn't hurt.

Former Viacom (VIA) CEO Tom Freston is a man on the move. Literally. Since cutting ties with one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, Freston has globetrotted from one exotic location to the next, offering financial support to the third world while keeping himself out of the spotlight and working behind the scenes. His consulting and investment company Firefly3 LLC acted as a VC for the video hosting site Veoh, and Freston himself is assisting Oprah with her eponymous network launch and Bono with his humanitarian organizations.

But Freston is no stranger to odd jobs or remote locales after working in media. In 1972, after working with the advertising firm Benton & Bowles, he was drawn to the emergence of Afghanistan's air-freight industry. He began an export clothing business called Hindu Kush in Kabul and Dehli, India and -- according to Fortune -- ran it until 1978 when a political coup in Afghanistan disrupted the operation.

Afterward, Freston returned to the states. Broke in New York City, he spotted a story about the launch of a cable network that focused on music videos. Ever the go-getter, Freston phoned the man behind the idea -- Executive Vice President of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company John Lack -- to be a part of its development. He was hired almost immediately and cultivated the network to become one of the biggest cultural touchstones the world has ever seen: MTV.

In 2004, having been President and CEO of MTV Networks for 17 years and having overseen dozens of popular programs for both MTV and Nickelodeon, Freston was tapped for a promotion by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, after company president Mel Karmazin vacated the seat due to clashes with the network curmudgeon. Signaling the beginning of his many problems with Redstone, Freston lost the job to Les Moonves after Redstone resented his needing time to think the job over. In the end, however, the company was split and Freston was set to oversee Viacom while Les Moonves was given the CBS Corporation (CBS).

It didn't take long for Redstone to oust Freston. In September 2006, reportedly angry over Viacom's precipitous drop in the market and the missed opportunity to buy MySpace before News Corp. (NWS) did, Redstone booted the Viacom CEO with a $60 million severance package.

Spurned by the forced exit and cheered on by fellow network executives and employees, Freston wasted no time in taking advantage of his time off. He told Fortune, "When I got fired, I had a feeling of loss because Viacom had been a passionate long-term relationship. But I got my balance back. I guess it's like getting jilted by a girlfriend, a serious girlfriend. You move on."

Along with his wife, mother, and brother, Freston traveled through 30 countries, mainly in Africa and Asia. And it was his experience abroad, along with his masterful business strategies, that drew the attention of the U2 frontman to track down and recruit Freston for his global humanitarian campaigns. Fully enlisted as a chair of Bono's international aid program ONE and on the board for AIDS awareness group Product RED, he restaffed the organizations, recruited new CEOs, and convinced Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz to run a RED promotion in the coffee chain.

Oprah Winfrey wasn't as initially successful in signing Freston on. It was only after their second meeting that Oprah persuaded him to act as a consultant in the development of The Oprah Winfrey Network -- or OWN -- alongside the media mogul and Discovery Communications (DISCA). Although fully aware of his friends' advice to avoid any more billionaire media personalities, Freston said that he was "trusting his gut" about Oprah. "But, you know," he said, "Oprah is anything but a billionaire-owner type." As such, Freston has been instrumental in building the brand's identity, selecting programs, and hiring former MTV president Christina Normal as CEO.

Just goes to show: You can take the man out of the network, but you can't take networking out of the man -- though it doesn't appear that Freston is willing to fully return to his old corporate lifestyle.

Mr. Freston didn't respond to Minyanville's request for an interview.
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