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Company Town | The Biz Q&A

MTV President Hitting All the Right Notes

Judy McGrath has tripled revenue at the cable channel.

May 30, 2000|SALLIE HOFMEISTER and CLAUDIA ELLER

Judy McGrath, the 47-year-old president of MTV and MTV 2, has one of the toughest jobs in show business. Since 1993, her charge has been translating the fleeting whims of teens and young adults into cable programming. It is the very elusiveness of these fickle folks, their utter lack of loyalty, that makes them an advertiser's dream.

MTV stumbled and lost its hold on this audience a couple of years ago. But after some self-examination and redirection, the channel is again hitting the bull's-eye, reaching more viewers ages 12 to 24 than any other cable network. Today, MTV and MTV 2--a 4-year-old mostly music video channel--together are worth an estimated $8 billion.

Yet McGrath, a major force behind MTV since 1981, has managed to keep a low profile, preferring that the spotlight is focused on her boss, MTV Networks chief Tom Freston.

Analysts estimate that since she took over as president in 1993, MTV's revenue has tripled, reaching an estimated $750 million this year. It will have pretax income of nearly $400 million--making it among the top five most-profitable U.S.-based networks, along with ESPN, HBO, NBC and ABC.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 8, 2000 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Kina--An interview with MTV President Judy McGrath that ran in the Business section May 30 misspelled the name of hip-hop artist Kina.

MTV is more ubiquitous than any of them. It reaches 300 million households in 83 countries in Asia, China, India, Australia, Brazil, Europe, Latin America and Russia.

Although MTV prides itself on staying close to its target audience, that loyalty can easily slip away. When it did in 1998, McGrath pushed the network into new types of programming and refocused it on popular music, rather than "just what people in the building liked." She says MTV now contributes to blockbuster record sales of such pop artists as Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.

McGrath expanded the channel beyond reality programs, such as "Real World," into live productions that she says "let the viewers speak." The results are some of the network's top-rated shows: Carson Daly's "Total Request Live," where viewers flock daily to New York's Times Square to see live bands; "FANatic," which features fans interviewing their favorite music, film and television stars; and "WebRiot," an Internet-TV music trivia game show.

Affable and plain-spoken, with a dry Irish wit, McGrath has a 5-year-old daughter whose favorite artist is Fatboy Slim. She grew up in Scranton, Pa., the daughter of two social workers.

McGrath, who loved Nirvana, adores Beck and would never miss a Neil Young concert, started her career as a junior copywriter at Mademoiselle magazine "typing recipes, and I still don't cook."

McGrath's journalistic experience brought her into "an old-girls' network" that eventually led her to MTV. Two of her colleagues, Brown Johnson, who today runs Nick Jr., and Ann Foley, now an executive with Showtime, suggested that she join them on Bob Pittman's team at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co., MTV Networks' predecessor company, to build the first-ever all-music cable channel.

"It's a fun job," she said. "The environment here is humorous and non-authoritarian. Frankly, I think I'm ruined for gainful employment anywhere else."

In a wide-ranging interview at her comfortable Manhattan-based office, where she had just popped a bowl of popcorn for guests, McGrath talked about MTV's challenges, trends in music, the merger between Viacom Inc., MTV's parent, and CBS Corp., and the addition to the family of Mel Karmazin, chief operating officer of the new company.

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Question: How do you stay ahead of the curve and keep the channel fresh?

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Answer: You have to be 100% creatively restless every day, most of all when things are good. Everything is so good now, it's ridiculous. It's not just 'N Sync. It's Tom Green. It's TRL. It's DMX and Lauryn Hill. Everybody seems to be finding something they're looking for. More people than ever are watching.

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Q: Is the pop-orientation of MTV a recent phenomenon?

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A: It was very pop in the beginning--Haircut 100 and Duran Duran. Even the Rod Stewart years were pop. The early '90s were the left-turn time from a pop format. It reflected the mood of the times.

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Q: So what about today's youth culture?

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A: I think they're open to lots of different kinds of music. They are people who live in a more diversified country, so the kids are not hung up on the old definitions and are not conforming to one kind of music. They're remixing their own culture, if you will, and they feel like they have a lot of choices and control.

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Q: Ratings fell off dramatically for a few years and are now stronger than ever. What changed?

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A: We had held on to the angry phase in the early '90s for too long. We noticed we were getting high marks on taking chances with music, but getting very low marks on playing music people actually liked. So we decided, "What the hell, let's play what's popular some of the time too."

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