MTV’s ‘Keeper of the Tone’

Nov 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Adam Sandler

Special to TelevisionWeek

A steady stream of well-wishers approached Judy McGrath recently at supermarket mogul Ron Burkle’s Beverly Hills estate to offer their congratulations. Though the 1,200 entertainment industry players had gathered to celebrate MTV Networks Group President Van Toffler, who that night received the prestigious Spirit of Life Award from the City of Hope, Ms. McGrath was clearly the belle of the ball.

She was promoted in July to chair and CEO of MTV Networks, making her what many in the industry consider to be the most powerful woman in the music business and simultaneously putting her in an elite group of top broadcasting executives.

This week the Women in Cable & Telecommunications Foundation salutes Ms. McGrath as its 2004 Woman of the Year. She will receive the Accolade Award Nov. 3 during the WICT Foundation Benefit Gala at the Hilton Washington. The gala’s theme-“25 Years of Creating Leaders. Together.”-reflects the WICT Foundation’s role in efforts to develop women leaders who transform the cable industry.

Ms. McGrath has certainly done that. Her promotion was the latest ascension in a dizzying 20-plus-year career at MTV. Her boss, friend and mentor Tom Freston had just moved up to become co-president and co-chief operating officer of MTV parent Viacom along with CBS chief Leslie Moonves. Ms. McGrath moved into Mr. Freston’s powerful job with its wider-ranging responsibilities.

It’s a propitious time for Ms. McGrath, who takes over the helm of MTV Networks as each of its businesses is operating at record highs, both creatively and profitably. MTV Networks reaches 400 million viewers in 164 countries and 18 languages. From its humble start as a single cable channel, it has grown into an industry leader.

But when Ms. McGrath joined MTV in November 1981 the nascent music channel reached fewer than 1 million homes and was carried on just a handful of cable systems.

“I was on my way to being a writer at Rolling Stone-that was my dream,” said Ms. McGrath, who had been a copy chief of Glamour magazine and senior writer for Mademoiselle Magazine when on a whim she went to a job interview at MTV.

“I had two friends who worked at MTV, and they said it was looking for writers. When I met with [MTV co-founder] Bob Pittman, I really liked the entrepreneurial feel of the place. And in the ’80s so much was going on creatively in New York City, and I wanted to be a part of all that. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, many of my friends at Conde Nast thought I was making the biggest mistake of my life by going to MTV, so I thought that if so many people objected, I was doing something right,” she said.

Ms. McGrath’s current duties include overall responsibility for MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT and Comedy Central. She also oversees Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Spike TV, TV Land, Noggin, the N, MTV Networks Digital Suite, MTV Networks International and all of the company’s related consumer products and digital businesses. In addition, she is shepherding the launch of Logo, a channel dedicated to gay- and lesbian-targeted programming.

“Judy is the perfect fit for the job,” said Mr. Freston, who is widely credited with keeping MTV evolutionary and revolutionary through a management style that empowers its executives and rewards creativity that coexists with bottom-line results.

“She loves her job, and that is one of the reasons she’s so good at it,” said Infinity Broadcasting CEO John Sykes, a co-founder of MTV, who helped hire Ms. McGrath in 1981 and has maintained a friendship with her for 23 years. “Judy has a terrific ability to understand young consumers, and she also understands the heart and soul of MTV.”

Connecting With Viewers

Ms. McGrath quickly developed an understanding of how to connect with the MTV viewer by creating promos, which in the early days were often more memorable than much of the channel’s music video programming.

“She helped build the cornerstone of MTV: the promos, which set the tone of the channel. And that tone still exists today,” Mr. Sykes said. “One could say she is the `keeper of the tone’ and ensures everyone at MTV knows what that tone is.”

Ms. McGrath’s efforts included the exploding “M” of the MTV logo, and the “I Want My MTV” campaign with the Police and The Who’s Pete Townshend among others. These would also become well known symbols of the new musical culture.

And as perhaps a precursor to Ms. McGrath’s ability to spot the next big thing, one of her earlier promos featured “viewers,” who were actually actors such as Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye, Meg Ryan and Daphne Zuniga. Like MTV, all would later become very successful.

“We had to develop a lot of pieces because we had so much airtime to fill between videos,” Ms. McGrath said. “There were almost no commercials, because no one was buying time yet.”

Ms. McGrath was quickly promoted from her job as a copywriter of promotions to editorial director of MTV and later ascended to executive VP and creative director and then president, before her most recent promotion.

Ms. McGrath said in the beginning so few people actually watched MTV that she couldn’t sense the magnitude of what she was helping to create. The channel wasn’t even on in Manhattan, where MTV’s offices are located. But a lot changed when MTV held its first “New Year’s Eve Rock ‘n’ Roll Ball” on Dec. 31, 1981, which in addition to being a party was the fledgling network’s first live telecast.

MTV executives booked Bow Wow Wow, David Johansen and Karla DeVito to perform at the ballroom at New York’s now-defunct Diplomat Hotelthat was rented for the event and held just 600 people. Concerned that nobody would attend the telecast, they gave away 1,000 tickets the day before the event. To their surprise, more than 1,000 people showed up and lined up around the block in the pouring rain to get in.

“I must have been the last person that Sykes pulled in the door before the fire marshal closed the party to any more guests,” said Ms. McGrath, who recalls seeing John Belushi and members of The Clash hanging out in the venue’s stairwells. “Though I had been to a lot of clubs in the city, it was the first time I saw such a diverse group of people from the worlds of music, art and elsewhere hanging out together. It made me think that maybe there is something to this MTV thing.”

The show was a hit, and MTV was put on the proverbial map. But executives had to spend the next month apologizing to angry clients and guests who were unable to get in.

The doubts have long subsided, and Ms. McGrath, who still lives in New York, now oversees a media empire that has grown to a global brand, with programming able to shift almost as quickly as the fickle tastes of its core audience of 12-plus-year-olds.

In addition, under Ms. McGrath’s and Mr. Freston’s aegis, MTV has developed important franchise programs, such as the “MTV Video Awards” and the “MTV Movie Awards,” that have also become barometers of pop culture.

But the ride to the top wasn’t always smooth.

In the early days, record label executives and advertisers were slow to embrace the channel, and artists such as Michael Jackson blasted MTV for not playing videos featuring such African Americans as himself or Rick James, even though, according to MTV, there weren’t many videos featuring those artists.

Label executives and artist managers complained publicly that the channel was censoring more adventurous videos by demanding expensive re-editing based on arbitrary criteria. In the ’90s, several of the major music conglomerates complained to Congress that MTV was too powerful and a monopoly, and they tried to launch a competing music network. It never materialized.

More recently, MTV programs like “Jackass” have been widely criticized, and the network has been involved in lawsuits concerning viewers who were injured emulating the show’s stunts. And MTV produced last February’s Super Bowl halftime show in which Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” led to a firestorm of protest from the public and lawmakers and resulted in the Federal Communications Commissio
n levying a record $550,000 in fines against parent Viacom.

From her 25th-floor corner office near Times Square, Ms. McGrath can see the moored aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, a visual metaphor for the fearlessness she displays while shepherding a diverse palette of programming assets, each with distinctly different creative sensibilities.

Brian Graden, president, entertainment, MTV Networks Music Group, credited Ms. McGrath’s “relentlessness of spirit” with keeping MTV’s content creative and groundbreaking. “She also wants diverse voices around the table, so that you are constantly challenged.

“Judy leads from a people-first point of view,” Mr. Graden said. “It makes everyone do their best work.”

“Judy knows where the curve is going before the curve does,” said Backer Entertainment CEO Steve Backer, an artist manager and music industry veteran who first met Ms. McGrath in 1984 when he was promoting videos for Epic Records. “Being at MTV for 20 years is like five lifetimes in the music business. Most executives would burn out and fade away. But Judy keeps getting it right.”

Ms. McGrath’s post puts her in a truly vaunted sorority of powerful women in media, which includes Geraldine Laybourne, chair and CEO of Oxygen Media, whom she considers a role model. Ms. McGrath credits her mother, who died in 1983 and never got to see her daughter’s business success, for her drive and for instilling in her early that women can be successful.

“She taught me that perseverance and doing something you were passionate about was the way to go,” Ms. McGrath said. “She always believed that women could and should do it all, or whatever they wanted.

“She was wondering about the role of women at MTV during the early ’80s, with all the videos with hair bands and women as [sex objects],” Ms. McGrath said with a laugh. “So I hear her voice often, especially when I see another booty shake on our channel.”

Ms. McGrath said her mother was also the source of her social activism, illustrated by such MTV campaigns as the Peabody Award-winning Choose or Lose and the Emmy Award-winning Fight for Your Rights: Protect Yourself, an AIDS awareness campaign. As a result, Ms. McGrath is known as a tireless worker engaged in advancing young people’s issues in a meaningful way.

The T.J. Martell Foundation, a well-established industry organization that raises funds for leukemia, cancer and AIDS research, named Ms. McGrath Humanitarian of the Year in 2003. The event honoring her raised more than $5.2 million. “She is one of the most committed and socially progressive programmers in all of broadcasting,” said Tony Martell, the group’s founder.

Ms. McGrath was also honored by Global Kids for her work promoting education and public responsibility.

She seems particularly glad to be selected for the WICT award. “My mother always wanted me to speak on women’s issues,” Ms. McGrath said. “I know she’d be pleased with an organization like WICT. I am honored to be recognized by it and to be in such a distinguished group.”