Mission Found, Mission Lost: MTV and MTVi

THE DAYS OF PASSION AND MISSION: EARLY MTV

In its early days, MTV rivaled the Blues Brothers for being on a “Mission from Gahd!” The channel was all about blowing apart media, creating something wholly new and different, and taking ownership of this new thing called “Cable TV.” Even its very early promos (conceived by George Lois, Fred Seibert, and Alan Goodman) had rock stars screaming “I WANT MY MTV!”

When you walked through the halls of MTV in those days, there was a palpable passion and energy. If you want to talk about Leadership and Creatives, you should study Pittman, Freston, McGrath, Herzog, Sykes and the others who built MTV from its early days. (Along with radio pioneer/wizard Les Garland and Fred Seibert, about whom I have more to say later.) They built a playbook that was part radio, part TV, and all “slice and dice and make it your own.” The channel was a mashup of everything cool from every kind of medium. 

The rule then was “Beg for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission.” If you had a great idea and you could pull together the resources to pull it off, go for it! You were given boots and expected to pull yourself up by the straps. To this day, hiring people from MTVN means you’re hiring self-starting, ambitious people who innovate, create and MAKE STUFF. 

At the time Judy McGrath was head of on-air promos. She had a tough problem: How do you make promos for a channel that makes fun of commercial culture? She solved it by calling the National Lampoon. (I believe this may be the only recorded instance of someone solving a problem by calling the Lampoon.) Glen Eichler, Kevin Curran and I went over. 

The job was SO easy. We’d show up at mid-afternoon on Friday. They’d serve us beer and pizza, we’d watch videos and tapes of the VJs. We’d make snide remarks about the network. We’d suggest that maybe a talking sock would make a good VJ. We’d think about how intelligent life on other planets would react to these videos as they traveled through the cosmos. On our way out, we grabbed all the free CDs we could get our hands on. We got invited to parties – and the very first Video Music Awards. A week or two later, a check for $100 would arrive in our mailbox. 

Around the same time the check arrived, we’d turn on MTV and see an ad that said “I’m just a talking sock, but I WANT MY MTV?” 

Judy did two things that were incredibly smart. One: She Trusted Creatives! (This has been Judy’s amazing strength throughout her career.) Our first response when we came in to talk about MTV was “is this a real channel? really?” She loved that. (And she loved the talking sock.) Second: She built a support network around her creatives. We riffed, she put people in the back of the room to take notes, think about scripting, organize and produce what we came up with. What’s smarter than that?

The promos were in line with the brand. And as time went on, MTV built up its own in-house team of comedic minds, bringing Glen Eichler in to create Daria, hiring Lampoon writers and comics to create “Remote Control,” a game show that came out of a guy’s basement… you get the idea.

It’s a testament to the leadership at MTVN that I found that sense of Mission pretty much intact when I had lunch one day in 1998 with Fred Seibert, who was starting up a new digital spinoff of MTV Networks, MTVi

ABOUT FRED SEIBERT

Before we talk MTVi and what it was like to be a creative in that Wild West… I have to talk about Fred. 

Fred is a genius. He is one of the most giving and generous people in the world with his time, his ideas, his heart. Full disclosure: He’s one of my best friends and one of the best mentors I’ve ever had. When I went to work at MTVi, the title on my business card was “The Other Fred.”  Fred understands mission, understands story, and better than anyone I know, understands how to manage creatives. 

When you start working with him, he’ll tell you about how one of his first jobs was as an engineer for the legendary jazz record producer, Rudy VanGelder. VanGelder owned a small recording studio over the GW Bridge in Englewood, NJ. He recorded EVERYONE from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Horace Silver to… well, everyone.

When you start with Fred, he’ll tell you about how one day he got a little too fussy with the equipment and the arrangements and the musicians. Rudy pulled him back into the control room. “Your job is to give those guys (on the other side of the glass) what they need. And then you come back here and let them do their job.”

Wise words. 

Fred & Co hired a lot of smart technologists, designers, producers and creatives to put together the vision for MTVi. I look back and kind of wonder how I was lucky enough to end up with Jason Hirschhorn, Nick Rockwell, Nicholas Butterworth, Rick Holzman, Ellie Hirschorn (one h!) and many others. Fred gave us a very long leash and told us to do whatever we want. 

MISSION LOST: MTVi 

MTVi was the late-90s attempt by MTV Networks to spin off its businesses into the heady world of digital. The idea was smart and forward-thinking. The MTV audience was leading the audience stampede into a new world and new modes of consumption. Had MTVN stayed with this, I believe they would be as huge a force in digital and social as the FAANG companies. Instead, they dropped the whole idea when the Web 1.0 bubble popped. They turned from visionaries to old guys suing YouTube for distributing clips of the Daily Show. (More about that later.) It’s a tragic lesson in what happens when you lose your sense of mission.

I was hired as a creative lead and SVP for MTVi. The “i” stood for “interactive.” Feels kind of quaint nowadays, doesn’t it?) The differences between the two gigs are worth talking about. 

One of the first things we did was a Livestream from the Sotheby’s auction of Eric Clapton’s guitars (for the Crossroads foundation). We did Livestreams from concerts. We created programming for the channel (The “My VH1 Awards,” maybe the first internet-voted awards show ever.) We merged programming on digital and linear. 

I have two favorite moments from the MY Vh1 awards, just to show you how crazy those days could get. 

  • Metallica was coming on the show. They hadn’t played live in a while. Oh, and they hated the internet. We offered fans a chance to vote on what song they’d like Metallica to play. Problem was, they didn’t want to play the song that was leading in the vote. I had a very tense meeting with them the night before the show. Go ahead, you tell James Hetfield that he has to play a song he doesn’t want to play!  I proposed a solution: Send out an email/phone blast and ask their fans to please write in the song that the band DID want to play. Make it a genuine “win.” In a few hours, the fans came through.
  • About an hour or so before the show, the talent people came up to me. “We have a problem. X star (I’m not gonna say who) is outside. They’re slated to present an award, but they thought they were getting an award. (X was a BIG DEAL.) To which I replied, “Then X is gonna get an award!” I made one up right there, as I walked over to X’s car. “There’s been a mixup… you’re getting the Vanguard award!”  X opened the door, headed inside. I ran over and found Bill Maher. I explained the situation and he agreed to present the award. And that’s life in the “Awards show” business.

We were proving that there was an audience for MTV, Nick, Comedy Central and others on the internet. We had a roadshow. We were going to IPO. And then… 

I think it was Abby Joseph Cohen who pronounced the whole dotcom thing “a bubble.” We all learned a new word around then: “Frothy.” 

The retreat began. Investors fled. MTV Networks folded its sites and digital activities back into the channels. Budgets were cut. We continued to fund digital music news, bought things like NeoPets for Nick, but the energy and sense of mission for digital was gone. The air went out of the balloon. Not just at MTVN, but everywhere. Not all at once, but within a year or two, MTVN would be suing YouTube for hosting clips of its shows.

Tom Freston and Judy lobbied for MTVN to purchase YouTube around that time. They definitely saw digital coming as we watched the traditional music business die around us. The death of MTVi was pure corporate, and pure dismissal of the power of creative to innovate.

As I hear from my friends at MTVN today it’s all about “Where’s the Money?” Even a hit show like “Yellowstone” on the Paramount Net is viewed as a financial black eye, when in fact it reinvigorated the channel and the brand. This is NOT the way you build Google or YouTube or Amazon. They lost the audience. They lost their mission. 

The energy went back into cable. And I went right along with the energy. 

BACK TO TRADITIONAL MEDIA

I came in and ran programming for VH1, for a short time. The network was in some serious trouble. Its flagship show, Behind the Music, had pretty much mined every “And Then Disaster Struck” story it could find. MTVN began to lose confidence in the channel. 

I have two things I’m proud of from those days. The Post-9/11 Concert for New York City and Best Week Ever.

And I tell about Best Week Ever on another page.

Things went bad for MTV in the later years. The loss of MySpace to Fox was a major ding in the armor. (Really??? I’d say they dodged a huge bullet, but that wasn’t how it was seen.) Sumner Redstone and Philippe Dauman had their own sense of mission, and I’ll leave it to them to say what that was.

When Tom and Judy left MTVN, you could feel the soul of the company being ripped out. I left in 2008. But the older sense of Mission, of creative chaos, of just letting rip and making great stuff will never leave me.