MTV's Last Executive Link to Its Music Programming Past, Van Toffler, Is Leaving the Network

Van Toffler
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Toffler leaves MTV after a 28-year run and is currently in discussions with potential investors for his next venture, Below the Radar.

The executive with the last real connection to MTV's musical roots, Van Toffler, is leaving the network.

Toffler leaves MTV after a 28-year run, having joined the network in 1987, just six years after it debuted to revolutionize television with programming built around music videos. But MTV long ago shed its musical foundation, as evidenced by the popular joke among viewers who grew up with the network — Justin Timberlake among them — that they remember when the network used to play videos.

As MTV found success with reality programs such as Real World, Road Rules, The Osbournes, and later Jackass, Teen Mom and The Hills, among many, many others, it became harder and harder for the network to commit to playing short-form music videos, which from a business perspective were hard to sell advertising against. The transition reached its logical conclusion in 2010, when the network officially removed the "M" from its music television moniker.

In an interview with Billboard last year, Toffler called MTV a "complete anomaly in media," and said that it was still "rebellious, irreverent and musical, but in a different way."

As the Internet grew and digital distribution took hold, the hole MTV left in music video programming was not just filled, but also usurped by streaming video players like YouTube and Vevo, which together account for most of the eyeballs watching music videos online today.

Given that Toffler, most recently in charge of Viacom's Music and Logo Group, the division under which MTV, VH1, CMT and all their attendant online properties sit, was most influential from a programming perspective in the music arena and with events like the VMAs, it was only a matter of time before he left. It's notable that even after he officially steps down in April, Toffler will remain involved with this year's CMT Awards and Video Music Awards as an executive producer.

"I was always a huge Van fan for the almost 13 years I was lucky enough to work with him at MTV and VH1," said Rob Barnett, who left Viacom to become founder/CEO of Omnivision Entertainment and My Damn Channel. "Van is one of the best executives inside the small group of inspired, smart superhumans who helped build one of the most impactful media companies ever."

In an internal memo to Viacom staff, Toffler, who began his career at Viacom in business development for Nickelodeon and now oversees 12 networks, said the move is "a very personal decision about pursuing the loud and insatiable part of my failed musician/poet soul that needs to purely make great stuff ... after a long wonderful run with all of you."

Toffler's departure represents the last in a long line of senior Viacom executives who helped establish MTV as a cultural force who've left the company over the last nine years, among them former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, who was fired very publicly and acrimoniously by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in 2006. Former MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath announced her departure in 2011, the morning after the premiere of MTV's Electric Barbarellas, a source of much head-butting between McGrath and Redstone. Toffler, who failed to mention Redstone in his exit memo, got his start in the entertainment business as a lawyer who assisted with Michael Jackson's purchase of the Beatles' catalog.

This team of executives, along with others such as current iHeartRadio CEO Bob Pittman, helped make MTV a cultural touchstone and brought the phrase "I Want My MTV" into the nation's collective lexicon. But lately, as pay TV distributors fight back against ever-higher licensing fees from network owners, the phrase has morphed in some respects into "I Don't Want My MTV." In recent years, Viacom's networks have been blacked out from subscribers to DirecTV and Suddenlink and faced a court challenge from Cablevision over how it bundles its networks in carriage deals. These distributors have argued that Viacom's fee increases for the networks are unjustified amid declining ratings. Viacom, of course, argues that its programming is more valuable than ever when on-demand, streaming and out-of-home viewing are taken into consideration.

News of Toffler's departure follows Jon Stewart's announcement last week that he would leave at some point this year as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, which like MTV is owned by Viacom.

Toffler's full memo is below.

Crafting this sort of email was never in my lexicon or even a passing thought. After all, who has a front row seat and voice for decades at the crossroads of music, pop, media and sometimes even global political culture and elects to leap off. Yup, this irrational chucklehead.

When Philippe approached me last year to continue leading the brands I adore until I aged into Bad Grandpa-like triple digits, I entered into a period of consternation and dare I say short bursts of deep thinking (don't worry, very short and not that deep). And after at least a few whole minutes and many more meals than Philippe wanted to have with me, I realized at my core I needed to get back to my love of jumping off cliffs without knowing how/where I might land and making expectation defying content that boldly breaks through new boundaries. So I'll be launching a new platform agnostic content creation and acquisition liger…. (yes, that stealth hybrid animal from Napoleon Dynamite), under the working title of Below The Radar, with details to come in the months ahead. To be clear, this is a very personal decision about pursuing the loud and insatiable part of my failed musician/poet soul that needs to purely make great stuff…..after a long wonderful run with all of you. But you aren't getting rid of me yet!

Details on what this all means for my beloved Music Group and Viacom fam will follow shortly from Philippe. I will transition the teams through April and then stay connected to oversee and EP a couple of our most visible tentpole events-the CMT Awards and the Video Music Awards.

It's rare air for execs to leave these gigs when and how they want and to pass it on to those who have lifted them and each other on their shoulders. Just saying: CMT currently has on its air its biggest show in history, VH1 currently has the #1 reality show in cable tv, and MTV was once again acknowledged as the world’s most valuable youth media brand, evolving with its audience into the biggest social brand in media with over 200 million followers. Oh… and mtv2 and Logo are in the midst of their highest rated years ever. Needed to float that in.

So indulge me for another mushy minute or two. I know and love most of you, except for those few who live in fear of my ire (I always wanted to use ire in a sentence), as it should be….not! Besides building the brands, content and businesses that are the envy of the industry, you all continue to operate each day with unbridled passion. And most importantly, with compassion and genuine affection for each other and the audiences you serve. Don't tell me that exists anywhere else.

Who are we kidding, most days this joint paid us for making magic we would beg to do for free. Hell, I danced onstage in Rio behind Axl and Slash and I wasn't hammered…and I have no rhythm. Crazy but pretty friggin memorable.

I won't recount the highs and lows of my time here; there are far too many for one email or even one lifetime. And pretty much all the lows have been quite well-documented (#wardrobemalfunction). The truth is I never had a single moment that wasn't made better by those around me. All of you elevated the good to exceptional and shrugged off the misses with jokes and lightning recovery. I hear the murmuring of Pootie Tang under your breath now- but just remember, some of the best creative is often ahead of its time.

As John Lennon said, I've had two true partners/loves in my life-Paul and Yoko-and hell those worked out pretty well. The same goes for me-I've had my wife and the resulting offspring who call me Pops, and I've had the Music Group. And that's as fine as it gets for an immature quite often inappropriate man.

So help me out here - continue to dazzle the world, turn right when the world is turning wrong but doesn't know it yet, champion and campaign for those underdogs who can't always get heard without the voices of loud global brands, be charitable and respect and honor your access to young people’s bedrooms throughout the world, bring your passion in your backpack to your workstations every day, f-up….do it boldly as I have shown by example and embrace and celebrate your mistakes and climb back up and do it again, and above all show your compassion for each other every day. I'll be watching!

I've loved every day with you all. Thanks for lifting me up, letting me lead you and allowing me quite often to get lost and always come back home.