After many years of getting bigger, major media companies are trying something new: getting smaller.

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NEW YORK — After many years of getting bigger, major media companies are trying something new: getting smaller.

Viacom, itself the product of many mergers over the past decade, said this week it was planning to split into two separate companies. The breakup would mark the biggest move yet among media conglomerates to slim down in response to rancor from investors who have tired of promises of big payoffs from consolidation.

“Synergy has proved more elusive than a lot of people imagined,” says Sam Craig, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he is director of the Entertainment, Media and Technology program. “The creation of content and its distribution are not only different businesses but have different degrees of volatility.”

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In splitting up Viacom, Chairman Sumner Redstone would be reversing course after more than a decade of building up a multifaceted media empire, which now includes CBS, MTV, the Paramount movie studio, a major radio company, theme parks and the Simon & Schuster book publisher.

Viacom already jettisoned its Blockbuster video-rental business last year after the unit went from being a cash cow to a blight on an otherwise well-performing company. Video rentals used to produce a lot of cash in the ’90s but now that business model is under attack as big retailers like Wal-Mart sell millions of cheap DVDs.

Now, six years after Viacom picked up its radio and outdoor units as part of a merger with CBS, the fortunes of those businesses have also faded. Recognizing a slowdown in radio and outdoor advertising growth, last month Viacom took an $18.4 billion charge to reflect the declining value of those holdings.

“There is no question that the world has changed since we acquired CBS,” said Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s chairman and CEO. “Now, it’s my job as the CEO of Viacom to adjust to a changing world.”

Under the plans announced this week, Viacom would split into two publicly held entities. One would be led by Tom Freston, the longtime MTV chief, and include the MTV as well as Paramount and other cable channels like VH1, while CBS honcho Les Moonves would head up another company made up of CBS, TV stations and the radio and outdoor units.

The idea is to allow investors to value the company’s units separately — the MTV properties, which are growing rapidly, versus the broadcast TV and radio properties, which aren’t growing as fast but still produce a large amount of cash.

Assuming the breakup goes as planned, Moonves and Freston would become CEOs of the two separate entities, while Redstone would remain chairman of both and also retain voting control through his holdings of supervoting stock.

Freston and Moonves are in a two-way race to succeed Redstone as CEO under a plan announced last year. But Redstone said it’s possible that he would relinquish the CEO title to Freston and Moonves earlier than the previously planned deadline of 2007 once the breakup occurs.

In breaking up Viacom, the company is acknowledging not only that some of its business units are growing faster than others, but also that investors are no longer excited about owning large, diversified media companies.

When Redstone and other moguls were building up conglomerates in the 1990s and early 2000s, many touted the idea that assembling large arrays of media businesses under one roof would create value. Advertising could be sold across various media formats, and one media outlet could be used to supplement and promote others in the family.

However, many of those promises of “synergy” have failed to be realized, and several media conglomerates have slimmed down in recent years in an effort to regain favor with investors.

Vivendi Universal, a French-based media and telecom behemoth, sold its cable networks and Hollywood studios to General Electric’s NBC after an acquisition spree nearly busted the company. Colorado-based Liberty Media announced last week that it would spin off its 50 percent stake in Discovery Communications. Liberty also spun off its international unit last year.

Time Warner, for its part, has paid a hefty price for its ill-fated decision to be acquired by AOL at the height of the Internet stock bubble in 2000. Its stock is still 75 percent below the level it reached before the merger, but has been regaining ground as the company sold off several businesses, including Warner Music Group, and reduced debt.

Time Warner also wants to create a separately traded cable company, which would allow investors to value that business on its own, but company spokeswoman Mia Carbonell said Time Warner has no plans to split up its businesses.

Michael Wolf, head of the media practice at consulting firm McKinsey, said the looming breakup of Viacom doesn’t necessarily mean that the age of media mergers is over. Achieving scale in one key industry at a time — say cable-TV networks or radio — will still have advantages, Wolf said, but you don’t necessarily have to be in all kinds of different businesses at once.

“Media companies want to return to being the darlings of Wall Street,” Wolf said. “What we’re going to see over the next few years is a reconfiguration of some of the companies as they try to assemble the right set of assets.”