Cable Powerhouse

It is official: 17-year MTV Networks veteran Judy McGrath is in charge of Viacom's cable empire. Her appointment as chairman and CEO of MTV Networks ends weeks of speculation over whom Tom Freston, now Viacom's co-COO with Les Moonves, would tap as his successor. McGrath was considered the likely choice. Other possible candidates, Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon networks and Spike TV, and international chief Bill Roedy are staying to work for McGrath, but MTVN's President and COO Mark Rosenthal is exiting.

In 1981, McGrath joined MTV as a copywriter for on-air promotions. Now she's running the whole show. Formerly in charge of MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and other music channels, she adds Nick channels, Spike TV and international, as well as ad and affiliate sales, to her roster. On day one of her new gig, McGrath spoke to B&C's Allison Romano about growing the business, how she keeps abreast of young viewers' tastes, and which network will get a little extra attention.

What are your three biggest goals for MTV Networks?

I want to keep the culture vibrant and attractive to talent and up the incredible roll MTV Networks are on. I want to continue pushing ahead in new media, like cell phones, PVRs and the Internet. We need to continue to develop and create for that. My other big goal is to be a champion for Herb Scannell and Bill Roedy and everything they want to accomplish with their networks.

MTV and Nickelodeon are going strong, but what about the other networks?

The N is a fantastic network. The fact there is original programming coming on Nick at Nite and TV Land is fabulous. Spike has a successful repositioning and needs to keep rolling and developing. Comedy needs to keep growing. Our challenge is always staying fresh with consumers. It's very competitive and crowded out there. New networks emerge on the basis of one hit, but I would bet on the strength of virtually all our networks.

How do you grow mature businesses like MTV and Nick?

We have a fantastic ad-sales business, but there is still a huge pile of money out there. There are more places to grow our ad revenue and more places to go where broadcast still dominates. We have to be creative thinkers when it comes to our partnerships with cable operators. Comcast is very smart to step out with on-demand programming. I've seen pilot projects here at Nick and MTV that we hope to roll out soon.

Your promotion changes the structure in place under Freston. What other executive changes are coming?

With [MTV President] Van Toffler, I have some great succession planning here. I'm fortunate to have [VH1 President] Christina Norman and [Comedy Central President] Doug Herzog and other great people on the funny and music side. It is quite possible I could replace myself in this current structure. Or I might look at different alignments that make even more sense and give other people an opportunity. I'll be talking to Herb and Bill and trying to figure that out.

Why not develop a more centralized operation, like Discovery or Disney's cable group?

I am a believer in decentralization. It has worked well here. We have excellent sales organizations and leadership in both ad sales and affiliate sales. I have been running a pretty big business myself for a couple of years, and I've had a good run with it.

You're outside the demo for a lot of your channels (McGrath is 51). How do you stay plugged in?

The entire organization is a diverse collection of people who continually change and challenge us. They bring an intelligence of what's going on, and what would be good for our networks. Our research keeps its eyes, ears and minds open to whatever is going on with young audiences.

What about your own focus group at home?

My daughter is 91/2, and we watch a lot of Nickelodeon. She is a skater-girl type.

She's not quite into The N yet, but she is very into TV Land and Nick at Nite shows like Full House,
Addams Family
and Green Acres. She watches a lot of Rugrats
and Fairly OddParents. We get up every morning to Rocket Power.

I have nephews in the Comedy Central and Spike demos, so I get a lot of intelligence from them, too.

There are a lot of networks, but what gets your immediate attention?

Logo [MTV's gay network] is something close to my heart. Wherever it resides in the organization, I always want to have an eye on it. It is a labor of love and has gotten great reaction from creative people.