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The Nation

Paramount Gets Its MTV

Tom Freston, whose unorthodox style made the fledgling network a power, is plotting a studio sequel.

June 20, 2004|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — As chairman of MTV Networks, Tom Freston sets a tone for his workforce of mostly 20- to 30-year-olds that's deliberately free from corporate rules and financial pressures.

"There's no dress code," he likes to say, "but there's no full-frontal nudity."

The 58-year-old Freston's unorthodox style has produced profound results: MTV Networks has redefined television for every generation over the last two decades. Its channels -- MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike TV, Comedy Central and dozens of offshoots -- have turned out irreverent, risque and sometimes crass hits that include "South Park," "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "The Osbournes."

Now, having built MTV Networks into a highly profitable force, Freston is being pressed for an encore that could change the face of its parent, Viacom Inc.

He recently was handpicked by Viacom Chairman and Chief Executive Sumner Redstone to reverse a cold streak at Paramount Pictures, one that has cost the studio a huge bonanza in DVD sales. Should Freston succeed, he might star in an even bigger role: filling Redstone's shoes as head of the third-largest media company when the 81-year-old steps down as planned.

The opportunity opened up this month when Viacom President Mel Karmazin quit after a power struggle with Redstone. Freston was named Viacom's co-president, along with CBS Television Chairman Leslie Moonves.

Both wanted to oversee the studio, but the prize went to Freston, whose insights into young consumers -- the world's most avid moviegoers -- could give Paramount an edge.

"He'll bring an MTV sensibility to bear to marketing to a youth market that you have to grab by the throat because they're pulled in a million directions," said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitors Relations Co., a box-office tracker. "With Freston's pedigree, there's no denying he has a leg-up in this arena."

MTV Networks isn't exactly known for highbrow fare but has given Viacom more influence over the fickle young audience coveted by Madison Avenue than any other media giant. While broadcasters have watched young viewers tune out, MTV Networks has tightened its grip on 18- to 34-year-olds, accounting for 23% of their viewing, according to Merrill Lynch.

For 12 years, MTV has been the most-watched channel by 12- to 24-year-olds. Nickelodeon's draw with kids has made it cable's No. 1 channel for eight years. Comedy Central's foulmouthed "South Park" and its subversive "Chappelle's Show" have been neck and neck as cable's most popular prime-time show, and its Emmy-winning "The Daily Show" is the primary news source for young adults.

Freston's MTV Networks has produced 28 lower-budget films for Paramount, including such big moneymakers as "Jimmy Neutron," "Rugrats Go Wild" and "Jackass: The Movie."

Reaching 400 million viewers worldwide, MTV Networks, run by Freston since 1987, is worth about $37 billion, more than twice that of CBS Television, according to Morgan Stanley.

"Very few people have come to grips with how culturally significant MTV Networks is," said Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "They've hit it in the heart of every demographic group they've gone after. We should be paying closer attention to people this powerful."

In an industry filled with limelight seekers, Freston has kept a low profile. That has helped the cable group, as well as Viacom, from becoming a bigger target than it has been for critics.

"It's especially ironic that MTV represents this rebellious, anti-establishment attitude, yet is part of a huge corporation," Thompson said. "It's a brilliant sleight of hand."

Of Freston's collection of channels, MTV has drawn the most criticism. The channel has long been on the hit lists of many parents because of certain shows deemed to glorify sex, underage drinking and cigarette smoking. Advocacy groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Parents Television Council have targeted the channel, particularly because of its popularity with preteens.

"There's a growing anger in this country about eating disorders, precocious sexuality, childhood obesity, alcohol use and the link with marketing," said Harvard psychologist Susan Linn, who contended that MTV Networks was as much to blame as the advertisers on its channels. "It's unchecked, unregulated, and it's time we started looking at it."

The din reached an all-time high this year when singer Janet Jackson bared her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, which was produced by MTV. The incident unleashed a bruising backlash including demands for tighter TV indecency controls.

Freston insisted that MTV knew nothing of Jackson's plan and that she acted on her own. He said the period was a low point in his career.

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