Judy McGrath, MTV Networks
Even after 25 years, McGrath continues to have a flair for pinpointing the wants and needs of a fickle demographic.When the fledgling MTV signed on for the first time in 1981, few could imagine that it would become an industry unto itself, with 28 U.S. and 107 international networks, as well as penetration into some 450 million households the world over. The whole phenomenon began with the humble idea of putting moving pictures to songs. Remember?
Actually, Judy McGrath recalls better than anyone.
"That was such a different world," says McGrath, the chairman and CEO of MTV Networks and the executive who oversees not merely the flagship network but CMT, Comedy Central, MTV2, Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, Spike TV, TV Land, VH1 and their numerous domestic and global permutations.
"Even 10 years ago, MTV was just a single linear screen," McGrath says. "But today, it's a brand that encompasses everything from TV to music to (video-on-demand), the Internet and broadband, games and consumer products like DVDs, films and wireless. What you learn is the necessity to keep evolving to keep pace with or ahead of consumer taste."
It's all about meeting the demands of an increasingly savvy and sophisticated audience, McGrath finds. "All of these devices, like iPods, gaming consoles, mobile phones -- they've opened up people's appetites for more, and you have to be in position to give it to them, to be there with the content experience they're looking for," she says.
Mind you, the unassuming, self-deprecating McGrath -- a 25-year veteran of the company -- has seen it all, having been on hand in 1981 to watch MTV's sign-on as well as all of the landscape's subsequent seismic alterations. One of those major changes came this year with the September ouster of Viacom CEO Tom Freston, McGrath's longtime colleague and close friend. It was a huge personal blow.
"My first reaction was stunned," she told the New York Times in October. "Personally, it was definitely a painful occurrence."
At the same time, the departure of Freston made McGrath's value to Viacom and MTV Networks that much greater given the wealth of wisdom she possesses as someone who has had her finger on the pulse of youth culture for a full quarter-century. There was tremendous concern at the time that she would feel the need to leave the company, which would have been perceived as catastrophic.
During that same NY Times interview, however, McGrath made it clear that she had no plans to leave. "I want the people that work here to know that I'm here, and I believe in our strategy, and I believe in them," she said.
That issue aside, 2006 turned out to be another solid year of savvy moves for both McGrath and the company she controls. Among the biggest deals conducted on McGrath's watch were Viacom's acquisition of the gaming and social networking service Xfire Inc. in April for $102 million; the agreement of mtvU, MTV's 24-hour college network, to acquire the student-newspaper network Y2M in August; the August acquisition of the online film/video/gaming/music site Atom Entertainment for $200 million; the acquisition in September of Harmonix Music Systems Inc. for $175 million; and the October acquisition of the online teen-author community Quizilla.com.
"The most important thing we're doing now is transforming into a fully digital entertainment company," McGrath believes. "We've always changed with our audiences, to reflect the current generation's tastes and interests. That's why our brands, like Spike or MTV or VH1, look and feel so different from just a few years ago. And that's what inspires our alliances."
This ever-changing world over which McGrath presides makes the idea of looking down the road five days, much less five years, seem futile. Nonetheless, she can't resist gazing into that crystal ball.
"Five years from now, this will still be a creatively nurturing place to work. And we will still be fighting against those things we detest: conformity, worship of formula, inequality. I hope we never become what everyone expects us to be."
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