Flannigan: A Digital Pioneer With Passion
MTV Networks' VP brings video sites to life
By Alex Weprin -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/2/2008 7:00:00 PM
Erik Flannigan has always been a big believer in digital media, and he's a big part of its evolving power.
Graduating from the University of Washington in 1990, he found himself entering the work force at the very beginning of the online revolution. Now, as executive VP of digital media for the MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which includes Comedy Central, Spike TV and TV Land as well as Atom.com and Gametrailers.com, he has been putting that early interest and knowledge to good use.
“I was at the leading edge of the [online] transition; 1991 is when my AOL address starts,” Flannigan says. “I got that bug very early.”
Despite his digital credentials, Flannigan's first love was always music. “I became this obsessed music kid at a very early age, obsessive to the point of being a super-fan of certain artists,” he says.
One of those artists was Bruce Springsteen, so when the chance to write and work for Springsteen fanzine Backstreets and alt-music magazine The Rocket came up during Flannigan's sophomore year in college, it was too good to resist. He eventually would become a senior editor for The Rocket and editor of the fanzine, and would go on to co-author two books with editor Charles Cross, one on Springsteen and a second on Led Zeppelin.
Flannigan moved to Los Angeles to manage a small music magazine called Ice, eventually returning to Seattle to do freelance music writing. It was there that his career took a turn toward new media.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company Starwave was starting an entertainment Website called Mr. Showbiz. Flannigan started freelancing for the site before joining the staff as associate editor in 1995, his first job working for an Internet site. Flannigan would come to run Mr. Showbiz, and started a music spin-off called Wall of Sound. Disney eventually purchased Starwave, which led to meetings with top Disney executives and new opportunities. “Somebody put a little checkbox next to me in the Disney universe,” he says.
Flannigan went on to run all of the entertainment verticals for the Disney Internet Group, including ABC.com and Movies.com. It was there that he worked for Dick Glover, now CEO of comedy site Funny or Die; Glover at the time was in charge of the non-Disney branded properties in the group.
“I'm prejudiced toward people who follow their passion, and Erik is passionate about music, pop culture, all of that, and so he's always been in positions where his avocation was his vocation,” Glover says. “He is also a really good guy. Those are the people that succeed, so it is no surprise to me that he has succeeded so much.”
Flannigan ended up joining RealNetworks, overseeing its music services, a tenure that included managing the company's purchase of online music service Rhapsody. Then Flannigan was tapped by AOL to run its entertainment verticals, including AOL TV, AOL Music and Moviefone, before being contacted in late 2006 about the MTVN job.
“I was a huge fan of Comedy Central. I was one of those people who was always Tivo-ing The Daily Show and The Colbert Report,” he says. “And I also knew as a consumer that they had not done right by themselves on the Web yet. There were huge opportunities there.”
Flannigan moved to New York and took the job in December 2006. “Two things were very clear to me. The first was that our future was around video,” he says. “There are 19 ways to get that movie [online], all of which are pretty good, but if you missed last night's show, whether it is Desperate Housewives or The Daily Show, there was no alternative. You could wait till it came out on DVD in nine months, or you could go looking for it.”
The second revelation for Flannigan was that fans were talking about The Daily Show, commenting on clips and message boards—except on Comedy's own site. Those realizations led to the launch of Thedailyshow.com, which features nearly every single clip from every single show since Stewart took over the program a decade ago.
Comedy's signature late-night show has continued to see ratings growth in the last few months—bolstered by the upcoming election—where nearly every ratings record has been broken. “I don't want to directly correlate these two things, but I don't think it's an accident that the growth we are seeing on-air has largely been young people,” Flannigan points out.
He plans to use those lessons as the company continues its digital march forward. A relaunch of Jokes.com is in the works (see p. 3), including a video archive of Comedy's standup programming. And there are plans to take Indecision2008.com into 2009 and beyond. “There is a congressional race just waiting to happen,” he says.
On the Spike front, Flannigan hopes to expand the network's relationship with mixed-martial arts league UFC, giving the sport's growing fan base a place to go online to get content they can't find elsewhere.
“[Erik] really works both sides, the technical side and the creative side; he gets these entrepreneurial businesses as they relate to big companies,” Herzog says. “He leads the charge.”
Of course, Flannigan has been keeping himself busy with his other new job as a dad. He and his wife Thais had their first child, Katell Ilse, in September. “I am doing the job on less sleep than ever,” he says. “She already has her Colbert Report 'onesie' on.”
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