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More than six months before her contract was to expire, Judy McGrath on Thursday walked away from her position as MTV Networks chairman and CEO, ending a 30-year association with a company that has grown from a tiny music video channel to an iconic global brand with strong TV networks like MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.
What McGrath and a handful of others pioneered and then re-invented multiple times over the past three decades was not only an amalgam of youth-skewing channels, websites, merchandise and programming, but more importantly a culture and state of mind. That culture reflected McGrath herself in many ways. She has always personified the opposite of the buttoned-down corporate style of business that permeates most companies today, including the rest of Viacom.
“To be creative, you have to focus on the creative, and that’s the way she always ran things for us,” said Tony DiSanto, who until early this year was MTV’s head of programming. “We were shielded from a lot of the business and were allowed to focus on the creative, which is what MTV is all about — taking chances and shedding your skin and trying things out with every new generation.”
Another former MTV executive said McGrath, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, created a kind of “bubble” in which employees could pursue what was new and hip, even when conventional wisdom and the battery of accountants, lawyers and researchers might not understand.
“Judy always made the atmosphere at MTV rock ‘n’ roll,” said Liz Gateley, an MTV programming executive until earlier this year when she left to form a company with DiSanto. “She knew how to hang with the boys and the girls, music artists, and always got along with everyone. But she also was MTV’s moral compass — you knew if Judy saw a show and thought it was too racy that you’d stepped over a huge line. She cared deeply for the brand and its ability to touch youth in important ways.”
The question now is whether McGrath’s exit will impact the culture she created.
Many believe the company has already changed significantly in recent years. In a memo announcing to the Viacom family that McGrath was leaving, as has been rumored for months, CEO Philippe Dauman went out of this way to heap praise on her for her accomplishments: “Throughout her career, Judy has embodied the spirit of discovery and reinvention that has defined and fueled a great deal of our creative and business success.”
However, Dauman also announced that McGrath would not be replaced. Instead, her direct reports — Doug Herzog, president of MTVN Entertainment Group; Van Toffler, president of MTVN Music & Logo Group; and Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon & MTVN Kids & Family Group — will now report directly to him.
Dauman, from his days as Sumner Redstone’s lawyer until now, is known as someone who believes in a chain of command, the value of research and a data-driven approach to the entertainment business.
Dauman and McGrath, said another source, “are two different people. She was part of the hip culture,” while Dauman is more comfortable in the world of business, finance and Wall Street.
Insiders said McGrath didn’t have a great relationship with Dauman. Unlike McGrath, Dauman is unlikely to be found hanging out with talent or listening to the newest music.
During her tenure, McGrath championed MTV’s move to reality shows, into the digital age and more recently into scripted series. However, there was one show she didn’t want or like, by multiple accounts, which happened to have premiered the night before her resignation was announced — a show built around a girl group called the Electric Barbarellas.
The group, according to numerous press accounts, was personally championed by Redstone. There was a spate of unwelcome publicity about how hard Redstone pushed the band and speculation about his motivation.
McGrath never went public with her dislike for The Electric Barbarellas, but it was well known inside the company.
Now, with longtime execs McGrath and Tom Freston out, Dauman will have an opportunity to show that his management style is right for the MTV Networks, as it has been for Paramount and other parts of the empire Redstone had assembled.
However, with the rapid growth of the Internet and new media, there are a lot of other attractions today for the youth audience who watch, listen and buy into MTV and its many brands. That relationship between the networks and the audience is fragile and easily broken.
Jason Hirschhorn, former chief digital officer of MTV Networks, tweeted about McGrath on Thursday: “The secret ingredient to MTVN success is the creative culture. Judy was the beacon. Not sure anyone understands how important that is.”
Kim Masters and Georg Szalai contributed to this report.
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