Rain fell from the inky skies over Manhattan just as Judy McGrath was racing for the Diplomat Hotel for the New Year's Eve Rock & Roll Ball. Anxious, she managed to get inside just as the doors were shutting on one of the biggest parties of the year.
The year was 1982 and Bow Wow Wow was on stage, but even more impressive was the guest list, a Who's Who of the hottest stars in the entertainment constellation, including John Belushi, David Johansen and Keith Haring.
It was that great time in New York in the '80s when art and music and comedy and all that stuff were developing in a really manic, crazy phase,” McGrath recalls. “And they were all there. They needed somewhere to hang out aside from the after-party at Saturday Night Live. It was so incredible. Keith Haring did the graphics for that first show.”
At that moment, she said to herself, “Wow, maybe this MTV thing is going to last if we can throw a party like this and these sorts of people want to show up.”
More than 25 years later, the affable redhead copywriter from Scranton, Pa., who made her mark with contests such as “One Night Stand With Journey,” is the Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, whose $7.2 billion portfolio includes MTV: Music Television, MTV2, mtvU, MTV Tr3s, VH1, VH1 Classic, VH1 Soul, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Noggin, The N, Comedy Central, TV Land and Spike TV. Its online stable is quickly building, too, with sites such as AddictingClips.com, AtomFilms, Shockwave.com and Neopets.
While a crush of competition has slowed MTV's meteoric rise, its transformation from a single channel to a global brand is nothing short of spectacular. Today, MTV Networks comprises 145 channels and more than 300 Websites that reach more than 505 million households worldwide in more than 160 countries and in 32 languages.
McGrath oversees it all, and she has forgotten about more rock-and-roll parties than most groupies could only fantasize about attending. At 54, she watches too much TV, she has a 12-year-old daughter who just discovered Jefferson Airplane, and she is considered by the young denizens of 1515 Broadway to be one of the last members of MTV's “old guard,” a bohemian mother figure who can nurture creativity while cranking profits.
After a shakeup in Viacom's upper ranks in which friend and CEO Tom Freston left the company in 2006, McGrath became the executive with the single biggest connection to MTV's roots. She is considered “a true icon of our industry,” Phillippe Dauman, President and CEO of Viacom, Inc., wrote in an e-mail.
“Judy was at the epicenter of MTV when I became involved with Viacom over 20 years ago,” he wrote. “Now at the top of the vast global networks that MTV Networks has become, she's at the core of our new Viacom team. Then as now, she's cool, she's passionate, she's in tune.”
Her greatest challenge today is keeping MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and the other networks fresh, while squeezing profits from myriad platforms. Colleagues say that McGrath, more than anyone, has made MTVN a haven for young writers and artists.
“She is an unconventional thinker,” says Freston, who worked with McGrath for more than 20 years. “She's a former bohemian who came to MTV for the best reason: love of music…and now she's bloomed into a full-blown businessperson.
“I have to laugh when I see her on these most-powerful-women-in-the-media lists,” says Freston, who recently joined the board of DreamWorks. “She's not motivated by money or power. One of her greatest values is that she is a magnet for the creative people MTV needs.”
Says McGrath, “I like the fact that the company is filled with restless young people. I like having a hand in trying to keep an environment going that makes it a great place for them to work, whether they just start a career here or come in [from elsewhere]. They have passionate feelings about it and a lot of arguments about it and they get to do a lot of great work. So, I think the culture of the place, certainly when I leave my floor, is very lively and fun.”
Perhaps more than anything, McGrath is convinced of the brand's staying power. MTV's The Real World, which many critics panned, preceded the tidal wave of reality TV, and is now in its 16th season. And for the first time, children who watched Nickelodeon now are at the age to have their own children who watch Nickelodeon.
“Believers get followed,” says MTV President Christina Norman. “She believes. She believes in our brands, our mission and our people. Personally, she believed in me. “
McGrath is perhaps best known for pushing pro-social initiatives at the channels. Since 1997, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation has given more than $34 million of new musical instruments to restore instrumental music programs in over 1,400 public schools in 80 cities.
She pushed for the Peabody Award-winning Choose or Lose campaign, as well as the Emmy award-winning Fight for Your Rights series, including “Take a Stand Against Discrimination” and ““Protect Yourself,” an AIDS awareness campaign on MTV. “I think it's a function of my era and my view that music is about social issues and politics as much as it's about girls and cars,” she says.
The upcoming election, for example, will be covered in some way across almost every MTVN platform. “Across our company, between Kids Pick the President on Nickelodeon—and they've always picked correctly, I might add—to Choose or Lose, to Indecision, to what Logo is doing, to [The Colbert Report], everybody's in on this election in their own unique, branded way. And so the hope is that it helps drive interests, action, activism.”
McGrath's parents seemed almost predestined to give birth to the head of MTV. Her mother, often involved in social work, was also a bit of an anti-authoritarian figure. “And I just sort of always remember her saying to me, have your own opinion.” As a student in a Catholic school for most of her life, she recalls a line that sticks with her even today: “The nun isn't always right.”
Her father passed on a genuine love of music. He had a troika of artists that he loved, and he urged her to listen when they played: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Earl Hines.
“I think later on that what I got from it was that he had crazy passion for it,” she says. “And it wasn't work and it wasn't family, and it really enriched his life. And I think on some level I wanted that for myself.”