Does it really matter who’s running the show?

Rob Long ruminates on celebrity obituaries.

Time magazine nearly wrote off Ronald Reagan too early (J Scott Applewhite / AP)
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When a famous – or notorious – person dies, it’s often remarkable to notice how quickly the obituaries are published. It’s not particularly unusual for the span of time between the official time of death and the appearance of a thoughtful, 1,000-word appraisal of the deceased’s life and works to be measured in minutes, not hours.

The dirty little secret, for many major news outlets, is that most of their obituaries are pre-written. Some hapless editor is tasked with the business of surveying the world scene and identifying elderly or infirm persons of note, and assigning even more hapless young reporters to pre-write their obituaries, on the theory that, “hey, you never know when one of these old dudes is going to wheeze his last breath”.

In 1981, when president Ronald Reagan was shot in the portico of the Washington Hilton, it was certainly inconvenient for him – but even more inconvenient for the editors of Time magazine, who were facing a printing deadline. Should they wait and see what odds the president's surgeons were giving him for survival before they printed up hundreds of thousands of copies of Time with a black border and a lengthy (pre-written, of course) obituary? Or should they just assume that Reagan wasn't going to make it and tell the printer to roll the presses?

In the end, they chose a middle path. They printed up several thousand copies of the Reagan obituary cover story – just in case – but they waited for absolute confirmation from the hospital before they gave the order to complete the press run. And it was a good thing, too, that they showed such prudence. Reagan made a full recovery – the news was everywhere within hours – and so the cover story had to be totally scrapped and rewritten, from The country mourns a president to Ronald Reagan: unstoppable cowboy president (or something like that).

The only reason I know this story is because, as I mentioned, several thousand copies of the now-useless Reagan obituary edition of Time were floating around, and I came across one of them years later at a rare book show priced at less than $50 (Dh184). How could I resist? It sits, framed, in my office, to remind me of two things: one, that news organisations get a lot of stuff wrong; and two, that if you're a really important person, someone somewhere is making sure your obituary is ready to go.

The man who owns Viacom, one of the largest and most sprawling media companies on Earth, is a 92-year-old multibillionaire. His obituary, it’s fair to say, is ready to go.

If you watched MTV or CBS or Showtime, have seen a movie produced by Paramount or watched a television show on Nickelodeon – if, in other words, you own a device that shows moving pictures of any kind – you’re a Viacom customer. Sumner Redstone, the man who controls the constellation of companies that make up the Viacom galaxy, has been at the helm for 25 years.

But in the past few years, Redstone – once a meddling and hands-on executive – has seldom been seen in public. His messy personal life, which consists of almost-constant feuds with his family and heirs, and a series of much-younger girlfriends, has been the subject of local Los Angeles gossip.

There are some people – mostly those who are in favour with the elderly Mr Redstone and want to keep it that way – who insist he’s at the top of his game, mentally sharp and totally alert. And there are some people – mostly those who are out of favour with Mr Redstone and aren’t happy about it – who insist that he’s mentally incompetent and should be removed from any position of power. Mr Redstone himself has been absent from meetings for the past year, and communicates only by email.

If you add it all up – an elderly mogul, a couple of mistresses, a complicated and self-interested family, a multibillion-dollar empire, a murky or non-existent plan of succession – you get a plot so lurid and over-the-top that even I, a writer of television scripts, would react to that pitch by saying: “Can’t we make this a little more realistic?”

And yet, the massive collection of media properties he owns continues making movies, producing television, pumping out product every day. Despite – or maybe because of – the utter chaos at the top of the organisation chart, nobody in the Viacom universe is waiting around for the boss’s obituary to appear. They’re just busily going about the task of making entertainment for a world audience.

It’s almost as if – and here I hope that I’m not shocking any­one – it doesn’t really matter who runs these kinds of large companies. It’s almost as if – despite decades of laudatory profiles of this or that CEO, despite the emergence of the “rock star” executive and the brilliant turnaround strategist – the guys at the top (and they usually are guys) are irrelevant. Interchangeable.

Perhaps the myth of the powerful and effective and indispensable corporate mastermind should be laid to rest.

I volunteer to write its obituary.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl