Van Toffler Looks Back at Nearly 30 Years at MTV: 'We Always Wanted to Stay Young'

Rich Fury/Invision/AP
Van Toffler poses for a portrait at the MTV office in Santa Monica, Calif. on Aug. 20, 2015.

With last month’s MTV Video Music Awards as his swan song, programming executive Van Toffler looks back at nearly three decades at the network -- and talks about what’s ahead.

You worked at MTV for 28 years. How did you get started there?

I love music but I played it very poorly. At the time I graduated college, all failed musicians who went on to run record labels went to law school. So I was an entertainment lawyer for a couple of years -- and a horrible one at that. 

I went to MTV and first worked primarily for Nickelodeon in business affairs -- I launched the licensing business. I was the only guy who had a sports jacket, so I had to do promos where they'd spin me around and slime me. Soon after, I went to MTV to do business development -- I started to take MTV around the world, I put MTV on the Internet, home video, "Unplugged" records, movies. 

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You're kind of the last of the Mohicans in terms of the group that ran MTV in its golden age. 

I'd like to think I've brought in great people who have the same passion for the brand that Tom [Freston, former Viacom CEO] and Judy [McGrath] and I do, and a bunch of them are still there. We were like the kids in high school who were stoned half the time, sat in the back of the room and still got A's. Metaphorically! 

And then we got popular because we were never too far removed from the audience. That's why MTV had such a loyal following. And we never got too rigid – we always wanted to stay young

Most pop culture media keeps some of its original audience, but MTV was always ruthless about moving on. Was that hard?

Jackass and The Osbournes were two of the biggest shows on TV. But unlike Seinfeld, which lasted 10 years, those lasted two years -- it was time to move on. We went from punk to Beavis and Butt-head. We never got married to one format or genre or audience -- we let them pass through MTV. Our median age has stayed around 20 for about 30 years.

That meant coming up with a lot more ideas.

That can be brutal because every couple of years people would say MTV is over. The taste of every generation was different -- some were incredibly rebellious, while others use their mom and dad as guideposts. We didn't have parents on MTV for 20 years and on Jersey Shore we have their parents bringing them tubs of pasta.

What's your favorite musical memory?

I have so many: Nirvana on the VMAs, Eric Clapton Unplugged, this years VMAs with Macklemore performing outside, Crossroads on CMT, Storytellers on VH-1. 

Any regrets?

My regrets are mostly when I didn't let a creative person follow their whim. Some things needed time to build and we couldn't always let them.

Liquid Television is a great memory for me because it was a hodgepodge of animation -- Beavis and Butt-head came out of it, AEon Flux came out of it. I wish it had lived longer because it had the kind of quirky animation that now lives in the digital landscape.

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You officially left MTV in April, but you executive produced the Video Music Awards -- which seems like it's more important than ever even though the ratings have declined.

What you'll probably see is that within 72 hours more people will see this than the previous one. Fewer will see it live, but it will be viewed by many people in disparate ways, not always from beginning to end. I think it's become a cultural touchstone -- there's something about artists on the VMA stage where they feel they need to one-up each other.

The VMAs always seem to make news. Is that why so many people watch it after it's first broadcast?

It's the most social event in TV besides the Super Bowl. If there are fewer cultural moments, fewer people watch it in the ensuing days. If you have Miley Cyrus and a foam finger or Kanye Wet announcing he's running for president, that gets people to watch.

The show got a lot of traction on Twitter -- the beef between Nicki and Miley, Kanye's speech. Is that something you try to maximize?

We love when people talk about the event. Ever since Kanye walked up on the stage and interrupted Taylor we felt that social media was the telephone and we had to provide the conversation. 

We embrace the chaos! Not many producers would accept not knowing what the winner of the biggest award of the night [Kanye West] was going to do, but that's part of the VMA heritage. The fact that Kurt Cobain didn't want to play the song we wanted and played [part of] "Rape Me" instead -- that's part of our history. Musicians aren't like actors -- they don't follow rules. 

MTV is having ratings problems. Do you think this is a temporary slump or a permanent decline?

MTV will come back in terms of ratings -- without a doubt. It won't look like the last ratings surge but they'll find new hit shows because they're singularly focused on this young demographic. On top of that, there's a systemic change in the TV business – there's both linear and on-demand viewing, and as we saw with the VMAs you have to embrace the consumption on live TV but also after it happens on on-demand.

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Any upcoming MTV shows you're especially excited about?

Shannara [which premieres in January] was arguably the best script I've read at MTV. And Scream. And Greatest Party Story Ever.

What's next for you professionally?

I'll announce my new company within a month or so. When you stay at a corporation long enough, if you're halfway decent at your job, you get promoted and end up managing a lot of people -- and sometimes you get removed from your passion, and mine is making stuff. I want to make short form digital stuff, digital movies, theatrical movies, TV shows, music events. I want to jump off some new cliffs.

Online video owes a lot to MTV in terms of its aesthetic. Do you think MTV deserves credit? Or, perhaps, blame?

I'd say it's more blame. I'd like to think Snapchat was created for me -- how much bad content can I make that lasts 24 hours and then goes away? I can crank out 30 seconds of content, 90 seconds -- I dream up that stuff at 3:30 in the morning.

At what point do you think online video will be generally profitable?

I think it will be, but I'm not sure when. But short form digital is also promotion for longer stuff. If I were going to do Napoleon Dynamite now, I would seed the character in short form video; then, if there were enough interest, I would make the movie. Even Jackass I would seed as short form. It might not be that lucrative, but it's great promotion because tens of millions of people will pass it around.

A version of this article first appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.