As top executives at MTV, Van Toffler and Brian Graden had two of the best jobs in television. Those jobs just got better.Recently anointed MTV Networks (MTVN) Chairman Judy McGrath tapped Toffler to essentially fill her old slot, upping him from president of MTV and MTV2 to president of MTVN Group and adding VH1, CMT and startup gay channel Logo to his portfolio.Programming wiz Graden, who will report to Toffler, goes from president of entertainment for MTV and VH1 to president of entertainment for MTVN Music Group and president of Logo; Graden also gets some official responsibility for programming at MTV's myriad international networks.There were no surprises here. Toffler and Graden have shared credit for the remarkable string of successes at MTV over the past five years, transforming dinosaurs like Ozzy Osbourne and afterthoughts like Jessica Simpson into pop-culture icons that have electrified the channel.The pair spoke to
B&C's John M. Higgins about their new jobs, the state of their networks and the music they rock to these days.
Van Toffler Deciphers Audience Signals
What's the mission here? Big changes or little ones?
MTV had its highest-rated year for the last five years. Business is at an all-time high domestically and internationally. CMT and VH1 are having their highest-rated years, too. We need to focus on how those brands expand with their audiences to the digital-media landscape. Logo is in pure launch mode. It's been a while since we've had a channel in distribution mode.
What's the big change for you?
I'm not sure there are big changes. I take more of a supervisory role and work with the channel leaders on strategy, focusing them on the future and brand extensions. But I don't want to be too removed from the content and creative processes. That's what jazzes me.
MTV hits last around two years, then fade. Is that good or bad?
It's inevitable with MTV's demographic. The shows burn bright and fast. The Osbournes
is on the cover of every magazine, then fades. Unlike the broadcast business, you don't have Friends
for 10 years. We're accustomed to this turnover, developing and launching shows year-round. This is the way we live.
It's a unique strategy even in cable. Can it last forever?
MTV has been able to read and lead the signals of its audience. We've evolved from a pure-music-video channel to having game shows and genre music channels to having long-form shows and music events. We created Total Request Live
because the audience wanted to have more control over the content, and see themselves on TV. We'll continue to evolve.
With so many reality and other shows, how much is MTV dependent on music trends?
We're kind of hand-in-glove with music and the music culture. A few years ago, music stars dominated entertainment, from J.Lo to Britney. That waned, and now it's young movie stars who dominate. That makes our lives harder. How do we make stars out of musicians the audience isn't completely connecting to? Linkin Park is a great band and makes great music, but the audience can't name the members.
I would give one of my limbs for a compelling, irreverent rock star. We need the new Axl Rose, but it just does not happen. Eminem is someone everyone gravitates to, but you don't have the equivalent in rock.
What about VH1? You're finally getting new series other than the nostalgia shows.
The ratings are great, and they've found a niche in terms of capturing current culture and entertainment. They can play a larger role in adult music, which sells quite a bit. Their packaging is wonderful for things like the Hip Hop Honors. Not everything works, but that's the way television goes.
Judy McGrath had Comedy Central, but you don't. Comedy Central President Doug Herzog fought to split it off, and he still reports up to Judy. Did you want it?
Not really. I was happy as I could be with my current job, so the notion of growing it is great. I'm a hands-on person and like to be close to the product. The brands I've got are great.
You love doing MTV Films, and I heard you were thinking about jumping over to Paramount.
I love my connection to movies now. We get to pick and choose when we want to make a movie, with no pressure to create a slate. That's what's great about being on the production end of movies, as opposed to managing a larger process.
But you guys have been so critical of how Paramount handled MTV Films.
The job I have enables me to do both. I'm a New York guy, a TV guy, and a music guy. I like being involved in all of those.
What keeps you up at night? It's not small music network Fuse.
MTV2's viewership quadruples Fuse's. I always fear the audience is going to a place these brands won't be quick enough to go to. If the audience gets content on their cellphones, for example, how do we get to that? It's not about the executives in the room. It's about making the audience's voice the loudest. I don't ever want to miss those signals.
You just flew to L.A. What was in your iPod?
Razorlight and Ringside. And there's a Stereophonics record that's a year old. I'm really grooving on those.
Brian Graden Champions Cultural Restlessness
What changes here? It's not as if you have a dramatically new job.
Van, Judy and I have been in a playgroup together for eight years. It's more of the same, but I mean that in a good way.
You've got a lot of turf. Are you stretched too thin?
It's all about the quality of the people working for you, as cliché as that sounds. The team at MTV has been together for seven years. The VH1 team [has been there] for three, and the turnaround there is pretty complete.
But you're hands-on now. You're not getting involved with TRL Norway?
If I were trying to give specific development notes or pick every development idea, then I would be stretched too thin. I empower people to make the creative choices they want. I get involved at the strategy and green-light phase.
What do you see for the channels?
MTV's got more working franchises than ever. Fourteen of the last 15 series have been a hit. The challenge is to extend this creative machine to other platforms our audience is embracing, like wireless or online content.
For VH1, the turnaround crossed the line in the past quarter. The Surreal Life
added super-fuel to our schedule. We need to cement the turnaround identity and find a couple more hits.
The reality show to re-create The Partridge Family
was not one of them.
I wish it would have connected on a wider scale. The sitcom from that is still to come, and that's really the gamble. That's the long-term play.
Do you worry you don't create programs with library value? It's crucial to other networks.
We do many things that are "of the moment." That said, we've seen interesting things on VOD with classic episodes of The Real World.
You're programming CMT. You aren't the least bit "country."
There are great people there. It's a chance to stretch myself. Actually, country music was ever present in my house. My father was obsessed with George Strait and Charlie Rich. I would try and slip my Journey albums in, and it just wasn't happening.
How do you get your arms around the international channels?
I want to create a culture where every MTV feels it could be creating formats that could end up anywhere. Right now, many of our hits are created here and exported. But in the industry, so much of hit television in America is being imported.
What are you watching from the new fall season?
I'm dying to watch Desperate Housewives. I like Lost. Wife Swap
is great; I like it much better than the Fox version. I've been sampling A&E's Dog the Bounty Hunter
and Growing Up Gotti
because our audience is going there. Who would have thought A&E would be in our competitive set? Or Discovery, because of Monster Garage?
What do you worry about?
On MTV, it's never OK to miss a trend. Preserving a cultural restlessness is something I worry about constantly. And a cultural curiosity—where it's never OK to live today, you have to live tomorrow. For VH1, we seem to have tapped into a cultural Zeitgeist for retro culture. Our digital channels? Getting to them before tomorrow gets here.
There's 40%-50% more dollars going into original programming aimed at 12-34s than three years ago. So there's 50% more creatives chasing an audience you had to yourself.
What's on your iPod?
I went on vacation in Europe and did a heavy mix of DJs, like Sasha and John Digweed.
It's trancelike, which I need for this job.