Reality and Other “Cool Stuff”

As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, Tony DiSanto had to sneak off to friends’ houses to watch rock and heavy-metal videos on MTV. While every other home on Long Island, N.Y., it seemed, was getting wired for cable, his parents were hold-outs. DiSanto’s determination to get his MTV would pay off when he scored an internship there and later became a production assistant on one of his favorite programs, the metal showcase Headbangers Ball.

“When I was a teenager watching MTV on cable,” he says, “I never in a million years thought I’d actually be working here.”

MTV’s programming has come a long way since the original Headbangers Ball, in large part thanks to DiSanto. Since starting as an intern at the network in 1987, he has worked his way up the programming and development ranks, helping to conceive and launch some of MTV’s most successful long-form shows. Now, as executive VP, series development & animation, he is helping to create the next generation of programs.

DiSanto’s love for visual media and storytelling was encouraged early on by his father, who took him to see movies like The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull and Midnight Express. DiSanto was so taken with film that he applied to only one college, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, to study film.

While a freshman, he scammed his way into an internship at MTV, forging a letter from the school promising academic credit. DiSanto stayed on as an intern through college, screening and logging tapes, going on shoots, and helping to produce studio pieces.

He also met his wife, Shirine Coburn, a fellow MTV intern who now runs her own PR and licensing agency in New York.

After graduating with a fine-arts degree in film and TV, DiSanto freelanced for MTV as a production assistant and later as a producer/director, working on everything from music shows and series like Totally Pauly, with Pauly Shore, to event programming like the New Year’s Eve and spring-break shows. On the side, he directed music and promotional videos for rising bands like Spin Doctors and Bile.

In 1994, DiSanto made staff at MTV. He produced and directed programs like Hangin’ With MTV and Say What? Karaoke before helping to launch MTV’s flagship afternoon block, the video countdown Total Request Live, in 1998.

While TRL proved a milestone for MTV, energizing the network’s ratings and drawing crowds of screaming fans to the sidewalk outside its Times Square studio, its success allowed DiSanto to make the leap to story-driven programming, where he could channel his love for narrative.

As VP and then senior VP of production, he created some of MTV’s most recent and recognizable hits, including wish-fulfillment documentary series Made, celebrity-reality shows like PoweR Girls and Run’s House, and wacky comedies like The Andy Milonakis Show.

But DiSanto’s greatest success was the series Laguna Beach, which broke ratings records and birthed the “dramality” genre by filming SoCal teens as if they were characters in a scripted soap opera.

At 37, DiSanto stays attuned to youth culture in part by managing some 30 young employees. It’s that audience of notoriously fickle and often jaded viewers that he hopes to reach with new shows and formats it hasn’t seen before.

“I got into this business to make cool stuff and create and have fun,” he says. “If anything’s becoming like factory production, it’s time to quit.”

As MTV embraces viewers on computer and cellphone screens, DiSanto remains focused on developing long-form series for TV. He’s executive-producing a Laguna spinoff called The Hills, as well as 8th & Ocean, a new dramality series about aspiring models in Miami’s South Beach, and The Shop, a barbershop reality series with music mogul Tommy Mottola as executive producer. DiSanto hopes to create animated series and fully scripted comedies and dramas, too.

Raising the Bar

With MTV’s decision last month to split its programmers into two teams—one devoted to long-form programs on TV, the other to short-form on emerging platforms—DiSanto will also take on chief programming duties at MTV2, the network’s irreverent, male-skewing sibling. He is aiming for the kind of show that “breaks out of the MTV2 bubble and makes an impact in pop culture,” an increasingly difficult challenge.

In the old days, he says, “I could put Pauly Shore in a crazy location and run a camera on him for two minutes, and that ended up working. Now the quality of what we produce and what we offer is so much higher, and it has to be, because our viewers are smart and savvy and they have strong opinions.”

Liz Gateley, VP of production development at MTV, has worked for DiSanto since 2003 and credits him with setting those high standards.

“He’s constantly pushing us to up the bar creatively,” she says. “He doesn’t accept that we just turn in the same thing in a different form each time.”

Brian Graden, president of entertainment at MTV Networks Music Group (and president of Logo), agrees. Being a good programmer “comes down to taste and integrity, and Tony’s got both,” says Graden, a longtime mentor to DiSanto. “He is obviously a star.”

Says DiSanto, “I’m good at making television shows, and I’m really thankful this place has given me a job where I do what I like to do.”