Jumping off the track of ascent at a major Park Avenue law firm to try to break into the television business may not seem like a smart move for a young lawyer. But it was clearly the right one for Van Toffler.
Ignore the fact that leaving Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays and Handler eventually led Toffler to become the No. 2 executive at MTV. The fact is Toffler was not very good at law. "I was the worst lawyer they ever had," he says. "There was no aspect of practicing law I was good at: attention to detail, working with other lawyers, working with the documents."
He's where he belongs today. As general manager of MTV, Toffler is responsible for managing the bulk of the day-to-day operations of the network, everything but programming. That includes marketing, licensing, merchandising, interactive services, the start-up MTV 2 network, interactive services and general financial functions of the operation.
Although the network's key department-programming-reports directly to MTV President Judy McGrath, Toffler assists on overall programming strategy and budgets.
That leaves him largely overshadowed by two high-profile executives, McGrath and Executive Vice President of Programming Brian Graden. But Toffler shares the credit for helping boost MTV out of the ratings-and-buzz slump it hit three years ago.
"Right now, he's sort of the forgotten guy," says one MTV insider. "Judy's the boss and gets boss-like credit. Brian's been putting on shows and hits 'em out of the park. Van's the guy in the middle. He's the reason the cogs move."
McGrath plucked him out of a job overseeing most of MTV's ancillary ventures. In 1997, Toffler was executive vice president of programming enterprises.
She says she wanted Toffler for the newly created general manager spot in part to ensure that Graden could focus entirely on fixing the network's programming, which had faded. She sees Toffler not only as strong on the business side but also as a creative and effective manager.
"I never thought of Van as the ancillary guy or the lawyer guy," McGrath says. "He's always been the music guy, the heart-and-soul guy, the people guy."
Toffler started out at MTV's parent group, MTV Networks. Despite working with such interesting Kaye, Scholer clients as Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley's estate, it took only 21/2 years there for Toffler to burn out. Born on Staten Island, N.Y., to a father who owned a small woman's clothing manufacturer, he wasn't leaving New York. So he sent letters to every New York music and TV company he could think of, finally getting a response from then-MTV Networks General Counsel Judith McHale.
She hired him, then promptly left for Discovery Communications. He worked mostly on Nickelodeon for a year before focusing solely on MTV.
That married Toffler with another of his frustrations: "The single reason I became a lawyer was I had no discernible music talent. I played guitar, played piano, had no talent."
But he was obsessed with music. "He's a smart guy, complete music lover and freak," says Doug Herzog, the former FOX Entertainment and Comedy Central president who was once in charge of programming for MTV. "He's very passionate about the product."
His first posts at MTV put him in charge of licensing the MTV name, programs and characters for toys, dolls and MTV's push into the theaters, MTV Productions. It also put him in charge of cutting deals with labels and artists to arrange for performances on MTV Unplugged, a live performance showcase that spawned giant albums for singers like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. MTV insiders also credit Toffler for MTV's early push onto the Internet, an expensive proposition that some resisted.
When he became general manager, MTV's Nielsen ratings had slumped from 0.6 to 0.4. Graden, McGrath and Toffler overhauled the programming, launching 23 shows in a year, several of which have galvanized the network: Total Request Live, Celebrity Death Match and quirky The Tom Greene Show. The network has now logged 12 consecutive quarters of ratings growth to a 0.8.
Toffler still sees programming gaps. The network needs to revive live performance somehow, add a late-night program and push more into scripted shows, of which soap opera Undressed has been a moderately successful stab. "We need to keep taking risks," he says.