What the New Viacom Plan Means for MTV and Other "Non-Core" Networks

Chris McCarthy - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of VH1

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish on Thursday unveiled a series of strategic changes that are designed to harness the media giant's brands with a focus on six core flagship brands.

Among the six is MTV, with oversight of the cabler given to Chris McCarthy. Ahead of Viacom's announcement, rumors had been swirling about the fate of non-core Viacom assets like VH1 and Logo — which McCarthy also oversees — as well as Viacom-owned TV Land and CMT, among others.

"The biggest takeaway for us in the [Viacom] building and from Bob is to bring a new spirit and energy around our business and our brands. It does feel like we're on the other side of an interesting time period," McCarthy tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And while there's a lot changing in the content space, we're incredibly optimistic and excited about what's ahead of us and the strategy we have to execute it."

As the ratings threshold for success becomes nearly impossible to measure and an a la carte world inches closer to reality, Viacom's new push to focus on its core assets (including Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Comedy Central, BET and Paramount) is seen as a way to help stem the bleeding among the media giant as well as better position niche networks to survive in a new world.

Below, McCarthy opens up about what the plan for the new Viacom means for MTV, how Spike-turned-Paramount Network will differ and what the company's new focus means for smaller brands such as VH1 that were left out of the "core brand" plan.

VH1 (and Logo) aren't among the six "core brands." What does this mean for the future of non-core networks like VH1, MTV2 and Logo?

Bob brought a lot of clarity in terms of the strategy he put forward. The six flagship brands are really about the global footprint and distribution of those brands. And also about the film side of the business. For VH1, nothing changes. It's incredibly strong and doing great. We have an amazing pipeline and as a domestic brand, it's incredibly powerful and continues to take more share and keep engaging the audience and talent. We have no plans of that stopping.

It's the same thing on the Logo side. For its size, it has an outside share of the audience. There's no denying that we wish it had more distribution, but I think there's some reality to the fact that it doesn't. Opportunistically, we're going to take advantage of those great assets and see how we can't get them a bigger platform with MTV and VH1, in terms of how we showcase that content. But today more than ever, that brand is incredibly important as it relates to representing LGBTQ voices and faces. 

MTV2 has always been a great place for us to incubate talent. It is one and the same in many ways with MTV and it will still continue to be. It's a great place for us to bring in younger talent and find new opportunities and formats like Guy Code, Girl Code and even talent — Nicole Byer started on MTV2. It will continue to be that.

For us as an asset and brand in the near-term, we're asking everyone on the MTV side to focus much more on MTV proper than say on an MTV2. But that doesn't mean fundamentally that the business will change. All of that product, more often than not, will appear on an MTV-only platform outside of the U.S.

There were rumors this week that VH1 could be merged with MTV. That doesn't sound like it's likely right now, but in the longer term, is that a possibility?

In many ways we are now. When I was at only VH1 and Logo, we had a much more integrated team — with exception of a small development team focused solely on Logo —  everything else was fully integrated. That was the same way at MTV2 and Logo, when I managed those both. It just made sense when I came over to MTV to fully integrate [departments]. We're not looking to do anything massive, but we're being thoughtful where Nina [L. Diaz] is managing development and programming across both [for unscripted]. And Mina is leaving and we'll hopefully have an announcement in the next day or so about one person overseeing both brands for scripted. We did that on the marketing side and we're finding much more integrated opportunities to do it versus having three completely siloed businesses, which today doesn't take advantage of our scale or the intellectual power and creativity that we have in house. We need to partner with talent externally and transition across the brands and take advantage of our scale. Moving forward, we'll keep integrating those brands, but it's certainly not a takeover in any way. Most of us started at MTV over the past 30 years and many of us cut our teeth at MTV2, VH1 or Logo and are now back at MTV in a great way.

Could there be any executive shuffles as part of this refocusing of Viacom? USA and Syfy, for example, merged their development teams. Is there a world in which Viacom could merge development teams from all of its brands — TV Land, Comedy Central, MTV, etc.?

I haven't heard that, but anything is possible. In many ways, we now have Kevin Kay charged with overseeing those brands. I'm sure he's going to find some opportunities just like we're doing on the MTV/VH1/Logo side. For us, it's easy to do it because fundamentally, our strategy is about doing live programming, big and bold genre-busting reality and then to have scripted that complements that. In many ways, we're looking to create a lot of that product in-house and then partner with production companies to bring it to life. In the reality space, when we're looking at formats, you can paint that format with talent for a younger or slightly older demo. It's really an opportunity for us to fully take advantage of our skill sets. But across all the brands? That's a good question. I don't know, but I don't anticipate it happening anytime soon.  

Mina Lefevre has exited. What does this mean for Maggie Malina, currently senior vp scripted at VH1? Will you be merging scripted with VH1 given that you already have unscripted merged under Nina Diaz (among other departments)?

It's definitely an opportunity; nothing has been locked yet. But we are huge fans of Maggie's. We're not looking to do, on the senior level, a merger in terms of massive layoffs. It's just opportunistically where it makes sense. VH1 hadn't had a head of marketing and MTV had a great one, so it made sense to pool those together. Nina is unique in her skill set to bring in reality producers and talent.

How will the renewed focus impact programming on other non-core networks? Could we see programming from TV Land, say Younger, move to MTV? In a perfect world, what does that look like?

I haven't talked about Younger and anything is possible, but I don't anticipate that happening. For our group, it makes sense where we have a strong asset in development — like right now we have some great stuff in development at VH1 and because we pivoted our development on MTV, it left us with a hole in the development cycle. Thankfully, VH1 had a really strong and healthy pipeline. You will be seeing in the summer some stuff that was originally developed for VH1 but will now be coming out on the air on MTV with a slightly different filter and different talent. What it allows us to do is create unique teams from the junior level who can create great stuff and on a senior level, take advantage of the scale that we have and put the assets where we think they'll do best and where we need them.

What happens to the non-core networks? Do they lose part of their budgets? Could their development move to other Viacom networks? Like TV Land's Heathers reboot, which sounds like a perfect MTV show.

They're non-core globally. So fundamentally, nothing changes in the U.S. I would imagine on the development side, because we're reframing both MTV and the new Paramount Network, I would imagine they're going to take advantage of the pipeline they have. And to your point, Keith Cox at TV Land is amazing at creating one-of-a-kind stories and bringing old stories to life for a new generation. I really don't know anything that they're doing, but I have to imagine Kevin Kay, who is a great executive, is going to take advantage of the scale that he has.

How will the Paramount Network differ from your networks?

On the MTV side, where we've had our most success is around young adults and youth culture. And a lot of that, more often than not, is in reality and live programming and life and experience programming with My Super Sweet 16, so we're going to lean heavily into that. On the Paramount Network side, they're going to take advantage of the intellectual property that they have much more on the scripted space and in a much broader fashion.

So on the scripted side, how tied to developing with Paramount Television are you? 

Not at all. The way we're looking at content today, in the short-term, while we want to own everything, we're not going to be able to own everything. As we move forward, we're looking at doing content deals — like we were talking to Enedmol yesterday — and we're looking at evolving those deals so we have the ability to jointly own it or jointly develop stuff. Whether that's with Paramount, internal or external companies, we want to be able to take advantage of our scale.

How much of this new focus is an effort to protect these core networks from an a la carte world?

Part of it is about the power of these brands. MTV and Comedy Central were some of the first cable brands when cable was the internet. It's harnessing their global scale and potential. The same with Paramount, which is strong internationally but not domestically. We're all struggling with and dealing with the reality of what the skinny bundle is going to look like. There's no question that brands like VH1 are important domestically and that isn't going to change; it just doesn't have a global footprint. But I can't imagine a skinny bundle world where VH1 wouldn't be included.

Bakish said MTV is focusing more on unscripted. As you prepare your new slates for summer, what kind of balance will there be between unscripted and scripted?

It's more about the product. For us, we've always gotten most of our audience from live and reality and that's our lifeblood. We need to build that back in a big way. Once we get that up and running, that's when our scripted assets will be best — when they're complementary to that. When we launched Teen Wolf and Awkward, those worked well because they were complementary with what we had on the air at the time. This past year was a great example where you can have strong scripted but without having good live and great reality, it doesn't make enough noise.

Sweet/Vicious, Loosely Exactly Nicole and Mary + Jane are still on the bubble. Will any of those return?

Mary + Jane and Nicole will not be returning. We partnered with the producers so that they can take that product back. We love the product and think they're great stories. We love Nicole and Snoop and have a lot of business with Snoop. But they just weren't resonating in the way that we would have liked them to. We respect the producers want to take them back and try to find a way to make them have a second life and redevelop them outside of us. Sweet/Vicious is a story we think is incredibly important and very timely and we're trying to figure out what the right way to relaunch that and figure out what the next iteration of that is. No decision has been made yet, but we love the show and are trying to figure that out. 

Will MTV's status as a core brand mean an increased budget and other non-core brands lose a bit of theirs?

I don't think it means less for the other brands, but it does mean more for us on the MTV side as we look to build short-form, events and real-world experiences and the on-the-ground and real-time experiences. That's really where the future investment is going to go. So how do we bring those flagship brands together and to life across every platform? It doesn't diminish the others, particularly domestically, because they are really strong.

How will the plan to launch movies and then subsequent TV series impact your future development? Are there specific properties you are looking at that could serve both brands?

Keith Cox is a great example of bringing films to life in terms of series [with Heathers]. It's a great space for us with a great library, with the MTV side with Napoleon Dynamite, Jackass and those great examples of unique stories. We're digging into that to find out what that is and where the opportunity is.