NewFronts 2015: MTV’s 1980s Pioneers Say They Could Right the Ship

In a rare onstage reunion, three early linchpins of MTV’s rise in the 1980s, Tom Freston, Bob Pittman and Judy McGrath, said they’d have a good shot at reviving the brand if they were (hypothetically) to return.

Asked by moderator Peter Kafka of Re/code about such a scenario during the annual NewFronts conference convened by Digitas LBi, Freston said, “I think that could be done. MTV is in a difficult position now because the music video moved online. … But I wouldn’t say MTV is gone at all.”

Added Freston, now a senior advisor to merchant banking firm the Raine Group, “I haven’t really watched it in the past 5-6 years. ... But they’re sort of the canary in the coalmine on linear TV, in terms of people moving to the on-demand world. It’s a problem to be conquered by clever people.”

McGrath generally agreed. “It’s tough to go from cool to uncool and back to cool, [but] it can be done,” she said. McGrath, who has produced and joined the board of since leaving Viacom in 2011, said MTV strayed when it “got really successful and Wall Street-oriented.” She added that MTV “has another act,” though recruiting would be crucial. “You have to hire people who could not be gainfully employed anywhere else,” she said.

Pittman, now CEO of iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), paid MTV its due as a global brand with a lot of juice left. “They are going down a path that probably none of the three of us would take it down, but it’s a path.” Multiplatform strategy will be essential regardless of other strategic goals, he added, noting, “When we were running it, things were very siloed.”

Shane Smith, cofounder and CEO of Vice Media, was also on the Digitas bill. He noted that Vice has learned plenty from its content partnerships with brands that would be relevant to choices on how to fit linear into the mix with a greater linear TV presence. (Reports have said A+E, already a 10% stakeholder, will rebrand one of its networks after Vice.) “Online has shown the good news about TV and the bad news about TV, and that’s how everyone fell in love with native ads,” he said. In his one-on-one conversation with Smith, Digitas North America chief Tony Weisman didn’t press him on the A+E reports.

During the MTV session, though, Freston, a friend of Smith’s whose company has invested in Vice, downplayed the significance linear TV would take in the company’s overall portfolio. “This is a digital-first brand,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the cornerstone of their business.”

Vice is scheduled to hold its NewFront event Friday afternoon.