Finding Her Groove

Judy McGrath doesn't like turbulence. Before business trips, she's been known to check Websites forecasting wind conditions on her flight path.

Lately, the 54-year-old Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks has dealt with her share of unforeseen tumult. It began with the ouster last year of her longtime friend, Viacom CEO Tom Freston, and continued with the departures of key executives and staff layoffs.

These days, MTV Networks—home to some of the most well-known brands on TV, including MTV, VH-1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and Spike—faces unprecedented competition, on TV and online. Because the networks are at the heart of Viacom's growth, boosting ad revenue is critical. And with a “challenged” advertising market ahead, McGrath will have to keep shows fresh, ratings high and ad sales up.

She's a camera-shy bohemian and a street-smart mother, who, as Freston says, came to MTV “for the best reason: love of music.” She draws talented people to the company like Jersey girls to a Springsteen concert. As one of the few remaining original MTV employees (she started in 1981 as an on-air promotions writer), she has a long, successful history of looking ahead.

McGrath sat down with B&C Editor Mark Robichaux for a conversation about her hometown of Scranton, Pa., today's youth, Jefferson Airplane, childhood obesity and whether MTV has lost its “cool.”

Pop culture today evolves at lightning speed—how do you keep your finger on the pulse?

I think you're either wired to do that or you're not. I was always driven insane by the notion that there was something going on somewhere that I didn't know about. And I'm sure there's more now that I don't. But thanks to this company, I have a great window on a lot of it and excellent research. I watch too much television, I listen to too much music, I still go out to shows.

I also have a 12-year-old living in my home, so that's a little living experiment. She thinks music runs freely out of the computer. I walked into the office at home the other day and she was on her computer doing something and she was listening to some music. And I said, “What are you listening to?” Because it sounded familiar. And she said, “Oh, I found this thing, it's called Jefferson Airplane, and I really like it.” It's fun to watch her discover and download.

And I have loads of people who are always sending me things and connecting me to things. It's more like friends who I think don't want me to be embarrassed by not knowing what Stereo Gum is or Wolfgang's Vault or one of these fabulous music sites that you can find. Or I have a friend who turned me on to...last year it was Elvis Perkins, and now it's Okkervil River. This is a great place for people to turn you on to new music, that's for sure. AndI always think music shows you the way.

What are you watching these days?

I love MTVU…I really like the fact that Sarah Silverman is here. I certainly watch Jon [Stewart] and Steven [Colbert]. And I think that my child is glued to Nickelodeon, so I'm really familiar with iCarly and Drake & Josh and some of those hit shows. VH1 is really rocking. And I definitely feel like CMT is in a groove. And for MTV, I think the 52 bands campaign they started is really, really fantastic and it's pretty much in every break. MTV I watch in total. And Jon Stewart is the place that I want to be at 11:00.

Are you satisfied with MTVN's digital revenue?

[Viacom Chairman] Phillippe [Dauman] wanted to be able to say we had more than $500 million in digital revenue, and we do this year. So I think in terms of business that's a pretty great accomplishment for a homegrown business. We didn't go out and make a big purchase in that space. So I think it speaks to the vitality of these big brands.

I think we've been able to lead fans online, and give them the opportunity to take stuff they like and put it on their MySpace page if they want to or take it with them or mash it, as you can on The N, or whatever you want to do with it. We've been very open about that. Aside from Google, we have deals with everyone, every mobile carrier, every cable operator, every satellite provider, with Microsoft, with Yahoo; our stuff is literally everywhere and we made it so that, if we're in the content business, it needs to be able to travel.

MTV has all these vertical sites. They did their casting for The Real World online. They've got a Super Sweet 16 kind of a broadband site where you can post your own party and your own cake and your own dress and your own friends. And it sort of speaks to the way people want to experience things in entertainment and media these days. I think the people who work here are completely on it. So if you produce a show now, you're also producing a vertical Web property.

So I think one of the advantages that this company offers now is we've got almost 100 million uniques across MTV Networks. We've got hundreds of brands of Websites, and we get to tie it to television in a way that makes sense. And when you do that, that's something to be proud of and something that's popular.

A Wall Street analyst said Viacom hasn't made “sufficient progress” in developing digital properties. How will you change investors' minds?

That's very old thinking! We're confident that with greater fragmentation on the Web, our strategy of developing a network of vertical properties to connect content, people and screens is the right one. The “niche” has always been very good to us. We're already seeing the results; in addition to more than doubling digital revenue in 2007 over 2006, we now reach 92 million unique users around the globe—up from 76 million in January—and we've grown our Web portfolio from less than 200 to 300 sites worldwide.

And we're not just building out hundreds of independent sites, we're connecting them through Flux—a next-generation social media platform that will allow us to take advantage of the “MTVN network effect” across our portfolio. We're doing this while building more community and cool new features into our properties to increase user engagement. It's working.

What did you take from your childhood in Scranton, Pa., to New York?

I still have friends from Scranton. Every year when we would announce whoever was going to be on the Video Music Awards, I would inevitably get a call and it would be, “I can't believe you got Def Leppard!” and it would be a great reminder of what people really love, you know? As opposed to what somebody thinks is cool or new or the latest, greatest. I think that helped me a lot, actually.

How does MTVN weave its pro-social agenda into a business—and still make money?

I remember when VH1 was doing Save the Music, which is fantastic, and I thought, it would be great if MTV had something like that that everyone acknowledged was so good. For the MTV audience, anything to do with sexual health, identity, gender, that kind of stuff, that's what really matters to them. And whether the whole world thinks that's the right thing to do or not. I mean, that's what you have to do. And so MTV does.

Some of my favorites are MTVU, which is our college network, which is in over 800 universities now, which I watch obsessively and I love. They actually made an interactive game called “Darfur Is Dying,” which sounds like probably everything wrong on one level and is everything right. They've done so much work on understanding that this is something that speaks to anybody who's interested in genocide, but certainly young adults. This Think site that we just launched collects all the pro-social things there are and helps you link up with an organization.

And how it ties to business, it's an enormous value to the vitality of these brands. In my years when I was the hands-on person at MTV, I certainly pushed it and funded it and celebrated it. And I think it's a function of my era and my view that music is about social issues and politics as much as it's about girls and cars.

Elections are around the corner, earlier than ever. What is MTVN doing to prepare?

The MTV team has done a partnership with MySpace, and so Choose or Lose and MySpace did a multi-screen, multi-platform, My Space user/MTV viewer interview with [presidential candidate] John Edwards.

So I think across our company, from Kids Pick the President on Nickelodeon—and they've always picked correctly, I might add—to Choose or Lose, to Indecision, to what Logo is doing, to [Stephen] Colbert, everybody's in on this election in their own unique, branded way. And so the hope is that it helps drive interests, action, activism.

What does your 12-year-old daughter watch?

As far as I know, the only thing she's ever watched on MTV is My Super Sweet16, to my husband's great dismay. I think she kind of understands the horror of it, as well as being slightly envious. She's really not glued to MTV yet. My kid is an online person.

Is Nickelodeon doing enough on the war against childhood obesity?

Yes, we've got SpongeBob carrots, and I bet your kids are eating them. But remember, Nickelodeon is definitely advertiser supported. They've always done a really great job, even working with the food companies. They do funny promos about your body and where food goes. They try to support activity and play. They literally do specials, whether it's with Linda Ellerbee, who just did one about how to cook and eat healthy and what to put in your lunch. I think they've followed along and put some bold guidelines on the table about the kind of advertising they will and won't do. And they've moved away from SpongeBob candy and toward carrots. So they're careful about where they place their beloved characters and they try to endorse good things.

I think there's enormous awareness about this. Nickelodeon has got a campaign and a partnership with the [Bill] Clinton initiative around this. He did a forum with kids that Linda Ellerbee [hosted]. I think awareness has been raised. I actually think they're doing a lot, so I feel good about it.

You must hear this chatter often: Is MTV losing its “cool?”

You know, it's sort of like the long career of an artist. I would say that MTV has always lived, even from when it went on the air, in that place between popular and cool, between hype and over-hype. Sometimes it's closer to one than the other. There've been years when it's been higher on the cool leading edge of things, like say the early '90s; lots of politics, even the Kurt Cobain years, very influential but not so popular. Then [came] the teen pop years; very popular but not so cool, in the critics' minds.

But I [place myself] in the minds of the audience. They love The Hills and they love Laguna Beach and they love [Rob and Big]. They're watching more TV than they ever did before, and distribution is pretty much maxed out. I think our Web properties are better and better all the time. So I think it waxes and wanes, the view of MTV, [depending on] who is talking about it.

I think there's no doubt in this flat, open, connected world we live in now, there's more competition and there are more new ways for somebody who's young to spend their time. But I think when there's stuff on MTV that they like, they're there.

I think globally it's got a long life ahead. Certainly everybody who walks in the door every day is knocking themselves out to make sure it's authentic, relevant, digital, global and viable for another 25 years.

Do you see a difference in the various generations of kids who grew up with MTV?

Well, I think there are differences, but there are some things that are the same. I think [there's a] desire for self-expression, or a curiosity about social things or self-esteem issues or my place in the universe. I think all of those things are consistent, and it's a certain time in life when that stuff is still most central to you.

I think MTV was always designed to welcome a new generation, and even Nickelodeon now has the first generation of Nickelodeon parents who grew up watching Nickelodeon.

And so they're learning some interesting things, too. I think that the millennials, as they're called, are the first generation who have had a really customized life. They've obviously had television networks designed for them but now they've got social networks, they have parents who have asked them what they want to wear, what they want to eat; choice is a big part of their lives. It's a very open media landscape; everything is open, information, all of it. I think it's going to make them uniquely fantastic.

With Viacom CEO Tom Freston gone, how do you feel about being one of the few “old guard” left at MTV?

Well the great thing about this is, you really don't ever have to miss anything because there's always another great adventure. When I look across all these incredible brands, there's always somebody new coming into them. And there's always a new idea or a new business opportunity, and it's thrilling. Johnny Knoxville e-mails me and then you get to meet Shane, the guy from Vice TV. So there's always somebody new coming into the tent and in doing so, somebody will be leaving it.

I think that I tend to be someone who looks forward. So Tom will be a friend forever and I think he's really happy out there doing stuff that he's very interested in. And I owe him enormously for all the opportunities over the years; I hope I can do the same for somebody else.

You've been described as a bohemian mother, credited with attracting and mentoring MTV's creative talent. What's worked for you?

Well, I do think that's my style and I think I learned that along the way from my parents. If I had any gifts then, over the years, it was to help find people and give them the chance. You know, [MTV President] Christina [Norman] was in production management when I first met her. It was clear she had great taste and great instincts. So any door I ever opened, I was more than rewarded for it. And I think especially because I came up through the on-air promotion and the creative side, I got to be around…some really insanely creative, wacky people.

What's the wildest party or meeting you ever witnessed at MTV?

You have to wait till I write the book. I'm not going to give that away. The things that I know, the stories that I can tell. Ah yes, I've had a great window seat here on some very wild stuff. Whatever you can imagine, it was wilder than that.