A Rockin’ Role

McGrath Keeps MTV Networks Plugged In and Focused

Judy McGrath, Chairman/CEO, MTV Networks

Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership

When Judy McGrath was president of MTV, her peers at rival cable networks would brag about their prowess in original programming if they launched three or four series a year. But McGrath in the late 1990s pushed MTV into overdrive, putting 50 or so shows into development and 20-25 of them on the air each year.

Why so aggressive? She reasoned that MTV’s young audiences are fickle and easily distracted, so she needed to flood the network with fresh options to hold their interest. With luck, some of the shows would strike gold and lift the network to new ratings heights.

It’s that kind of forceful push that helped McGrath rise to the top of MTV Networks (MTVN), becoming chairman/CEO of the group in 2005. It’s also why she’s receiving the Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership this year.

At 53, she is in charge of a $7 billion-a-year operation, now owned by Viacom, that includes some of the strongest networks in cable: MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and Comedy Central, plus a bevy of splinter channels including MTV Jams and Noggin. MTVN also has a large international operation, providing programming to 43 channels networks in Europe, Asia and South America.

McGrath has been at MTV since its earliest days. Born in Scranton, Pa., she attended a local college, Cedar Crest, and then headed for New York, dreaming of a job writing for Rolling Stone. Instead, she wound up in the fluffy world of women’s magazines, first as writer for Mademoiselle handling topics in which she had little interest, such as food. Later, she spent four years as a writer and chief of the copy desk for Glamour. In 1981, friends working at another network told her about MTV, which had just been launched by Warner Amex Satellite. She interviewed for a slot as a writer in the promotions department.

It proved to be a hotbed of creativity. In its earliest years, MTV was dominated by music videos and had little original programming. But odd promotions solidified the network’s image, from the little astronaut unfurling an MTV flag on the moon to the breakthrough “I Want My MTV” campaign. It’s no accident that many of the network’s top executives over the years rose from the marketing side, including current Viacom President Tom Freston, recently departed Nickelodeon Group chief Herb Scannell, and onetime VH1 President John Sykes.


At MTV, marketing and programming were deeply intertwined, which put her in the middle of the creation of the Video Music Awards in 1984. In 1987, McGrath crossed over to programming completely, becoming editorial director in 1987 and creative director in 1991. That put her in a pivotal position as the network generated cornerstone hits like Beavis & Butt-Head and the first reality show, The Real World. Even though the network has shifted away from music, McGrath once said that the best part of her job is getting to talk to her rock idol, Neil Young.


Throughout her career, McGrath has been lauded by colleagues for creative savvy and fostering a collaborative atmosphere that helps strong ideas rise. A frequent description of her is hippie-ish, cool mom.

For all of her earth-mother qualities, though, McGrath has proved an adept corporate politician. Initially, she was named co-president of MTV, splitting the job with Sara Levinson in 1993. McGrath was in charge of programming, and Levinson, another longtime MTV exec, handled marketing and business affairs.

The arrangement lasted less than a year, ending with Levinson leaving for a job heading up NFL Properties for the National Football League. McGrath emerged with all the MTV turf.

When Freston moved from head of MTVN to become co-president of Viacom in 2004, McGrath edged past two other longtime executives who wanted his job: MTVN President Mark Rosenthal and Nickelodeon’s Scannell, both of whom have left the company.

With her portfolio vastly expanded, McGrath is extending her aggressive programming moves to the digital world. Most TV networks still use the Web primarily for promotion of their conventional channels. McGrath and new MTVN President Michael Wolf have declared a “digital Marshall Plan” splitting MTV’s programming operation into two parts, one dedicated to the “linear” cable channels and another dedicated to broadband. cellphones and videogames.

“Nobody wants to be who they used to be, including us. Media identities, like market share, are up for grabs,” McGrath was quoted by Business Week as telling a January gathering of MTVN sales executives in Miami. MTV launched in 1981 with a video of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” “If we were launching today, the first song I’d tee up would be the [1980s band] Plimsouls’ 'Everywhere at Once.’”