When Van Toffler first went to work at 1515 Broadway in the mid-1980s, starting in business development for Nickelodeon and eventually rising to GM, then president of MTV, the company’s Times Square location was the polar opposite of the Disney-fied pedestrian mecca it has become. “It was drug dealers, pimps and hos,” says the 54-year-old New York native. “A lot of us left work at 1 a.m. or the next morning after editing 120 Minutes all night. It was different.”
Now running 12 networks under Viacom’s Music & Logo Group, including VH1, CMT and Logo (Viacom’s 2013 revenue topped $13 billion; MTV reaches some 99 million homes and commands a per-subscriber fee of 47 cents, according to SNL Kagan), he doesn’t lament the loss of MTV’s music video years, which you could argue expired in 2010 when the network officially removed the “M” from its Music Television moniker.
Reflection is not what MTV is about. Witness: the Video Music Awards, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Aug. 24 at the recently renovated Forum in Los Angeles -- the venue offers “a level of intimacy” for an in-the-round stage -- yet, as of press time, the network has no plans to honor the milestone. Madonna writhing in her “Like a Virgin” wedding gown? You have a better chance of seeing it on YouTube. “The VMAs are about what’s current,” says Toffler. (The 2013 edition drew 10.1 million viewers among P12-34, up 66 percent from 2012, according to MTV. Labels saw an average 37 percent post-VMAs bump in sales.)
MTV ratings have dipped in recent years, reportedly averaging little more than 800,000 in prime time, but what the network shares with its former self is the secret sauce that has allowed it to remain nimble, youth-relevant and resilient with an audience that never grows old. Says Toffler: “A complete anomaly in media.” Today, he adds, it’s still “rebellious, irreverent and musical, but in a different way.” The father of two, who still loves vinyl, making mixtapes and playing “bad guitar,” talks about tuning in to the fickle youth market, surviving Miley Cyrus backlash and why new networks hardly make him flinch.
Beyoncé will be honored with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the VMAs. How are you feeling about all the tabloid chatter leading up to the big night?
That’s the gift that keeps on giving. If we could have Solange and Jay Z around somewhere, how’s that not good? But really, the decision to give Beyoncé the award had absolutely nothing to do with the controversy or chatter and was decided well before this. In fact, just after Justin [Timberlake] left the stage in 2013. And then when Beyoncé put out an album in such a visual way, she was the most obvious choice.
You took some heat after the 2013 edition, for the Miley Cyrus-Robin Thicke performance, and a seemingly botched Daft Punk booking that angered Stephen Colbert, who called you “Van Wilder” and “Flan Cobbler.” Looking back now, any new perspective?
The day after the VMAs, the Today show called for me to be fired because of Miley. I am so used to this -- I get death threats and hate mail. I’m thick-skinned, and I love Stephen. It was great for us. It brought attention to the fact that Daft Punk was on our show.
The Federal Communications Commission is probing Cyrus’ NBC special for indecency. How would you have handled televising the Bangerz Tour?
For better or worse -- not because we’re wonderful people, but because we’ve been in business with artists for so long -- there’s a level of trust. So we would have collaborated with her. When we shot an Unplugged with Miley and Madonna, both were there in the audio and video truck for hours after the show going over the cuts and the sound. The networks are in the business of licensing shows. We’ve produced more of these and think we have the best performance shows on TV, so it would’ve been done in partnership.
MTV’s core is teenagers. How do you keep up with such a young audience?
We probably talk to them more than any other company, in terms of research, focus groups, call-outs. We listen to our audience every day. And we reinvent every three to five years. If they say, “I’m sick of soft-scripted reality like The Hills and want something more authentic, it yields Jersey Shore and Catfish ... They tell us how much we suck or what they love and we never get too comfortable or lazy. It’s unlike the rest of the TV industry where a network can have a show like Friends for a decade. Our shows, like The Osbournes or Beavis and Butt-Head, they were so bright but burned so fast.
Considering MTV’s former dominance as the hub for music videos, some believe it could have been YouTube or Vevo. Does that gnaw at you?
What gnaws at me is anything that takes leisure time and attention of young people away -- something that’s competitive to the brand ... I don’t think we could have been YouTube because we’re a content company and we’re having to learn how to be a product feature company. But we create premium content. We’re now digitized and have arguably the most valuable video library of the last 30 years. There’s Julia Roberts’ VJ audition, Keith Richards talking about his favorite LPs.
CMT’s ratings are up some 30 percent in the last year, and Taylor Swift hasn’t even put out an album. Why?
I don’t know if you’ve heard: Taylor Swift’s no longer country. (Laughs.) I think there is a wonderful, more youthful movement in country music -- from Luke Bryan to Jason Aldean to Dierks Bentley -- where it’s no longer Garth Brooks and Reba [McEntire]. But the advantage that CMT has that MTV doesn’t is they can and do embrace their heritage. So they can honor Johnny Cash as well as embrace Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood.
VH1 has seen a surge in prime-time viewer-ship among African-Americans. Who is the network’s audience?
“Adultsters” -- what we define as a 25-year-old torn between wanting to be irreverent and rebellious and also having some real adult responsibilities. So they go out with their friends, they get drunk and then have to wake up and go to their job.
You continue to air new seasons of Teen Mom 2 despite having cast a different group of teenage mothers for seasons one and three. What is it about this ensemble that resonates so deeply with the MTV audience?
These particular young ladies were wonderfully volatile and compelling in really telling of the repercussions of having a kid at a young age. And I might add the teen pregnancy rate went down as a result of Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant.
And when the Farrah Abrahams of the world go on to hawk sex tapes, do you feel a responsibility at all to what happens to those people?
I don't really. We make decisions about what to put on the channel; it's not like we judge what musicians do outside of their videos or our shows. We don't control those people's lives.
New players in music TV have popped up, including P. Diddy. What do you make of the Revolt network?
I don’t see it. Literally. I wish I could pass judgment but I can’t find it, and I assume the rest of the country can’t either. It’s tough to start a new linear TV network now.
Viacom has HD network Palladia, which airs popular music programs like Live From Daryl’s House and feels like it’s targeting a similar audience to that of Mark Cuban’s Axs TV.
But Axs is kind of frenetic. It’s not all music, and I don’t know how the other stuff got on there. Because they could get a concert, they put it on? I don’t understand it.
How would you diagnose the health of the music industry right now?
As a fan, I’m happy there are so many ways to access and discover music. As a business, it’s really troubled. It’s always been a singles game, but in the ’80s and ’90s labels had more money to see an artist through one or two records as they were evolving -- like a U2. There’s definitely less patience today. But I’m a firm believer in micro-relationships between artists and fans. Allowing the artist to figure out ways to monetize, whether that’s selling a single or a T-shirt or playing in someone’s living room, [lets] the artist [be more in control and] less reliant on the big machinery.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 23rd issue of Billboard Magazine