McGrath Helped Make the World Want Its MTV

Judy McGrath

President, MTV Networks Music Group

The world wants its MTV. Viacom's flagship cable music network has become every bit as much an international American brand as Coke and Big Mac. Much of the credit for that goes to Judy McGrath, president, MTV Networks Music Group.

McGrath is not in charge of the 42 MTV channels outside the United States, but she is part of the original executive core group that launched the channel in 1981 and did so much to set its tone and direction. With Tom Freston, her long-time colleague at MTV who was recently promoted to co-chief operating officer of Viacom, she has been at the helm of every iteration and expansion in the brand's two-decades-plus history.

From the beginning, when MTV debuted with its insouciant astronaut-on-the-moon logo, "we absolutely thought of it as a brand," McGrath says, but "I was very wary of that language." Accordingly, in the early days, the core group didn't talk in the language of marketing and branding.

"We thought of it as a promise, and we very much wanted MTV to be meaningful despite the changing nature of pop music or the personalities who might come and go," she says. "It was not going to be static and marry one generation and grow old with it. ... Our goal was to be the non-network network."

McGrath's responsibilities include MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT, and Comedy Central, the newest addition to the group. She also will add Logo, Viacom's new 24/7 gay-themed cable network when it launches next February.

Along with Freston, McGrath is generally credited with such promotional innovations as the "Rock the Vote" and the "Choose or Lose" voter-awareness and -registration campaigns.

Controversy has been a hallmark of—and possibly a necessary ingredient in—the youth-appealing MTV brand, although that's not a proposition with which McGrath would agree.

However, she acknowledges that risk and creative thinking are close cousins.

Perhaps the most controversial MTV move of all occurred in the mid and late 1990s, when MTV, its ratings then having become minuscule, moved away from its original all-videos-all-the-time programming stance.

Music purists have grumbled about the network's so-called sell-out, but the risky refocusing brought the influential Total Request Live
and a second generation of reality programming that brought new and larger audiences to the flagship music network, even as the brand itself was proliferating.

"We try not to fall in love with our own last idea," McGrath says. "The most important word in 'I want my MTV' is 'my.' It's built on a foundation of understanding who that consumer/user/viewer/human being is out there and of trying to be brutally true to them."