MTV's Bruce Gillmer Talks Hailee Steinfeld, Janet Jackson & Madonna's Controversial Aretha Franklin Tribute Ahead of EMAs

Bruce Gillmer
Courtesy of MTV

Bruce Gillmer

The 25th annual MTV European Music Awards takes place this Sunday in Bilbao, Spain, where host Hailee Steinfeld will introduce performances from Nicki Minaj, Halsey, global icon award recipient Janet Jackson and many more.

Last year's EMAs event in London reached nearly 500 million households across more than 180 countries and had a social media reach of 320 million fans, according to MTV parent company Viacom.

With final preparation and rehearsals underway for this year's event, Billboard spoke with Bruce Gillmer, global head of music and talent, Viacom and co-brand head, MTV International, about what viewers can expect, picking a global icon and reflecting on #MeToo.

What are you personally most looking forward to at this year's show?

First and foremost we're looking forward to Hailee Steinfeld. She's going to be an incredible host and we feel like we've got her at just the right time. She's about to star in the upcoming film Bumblebee, which is one of our Paramount releases. She's an incredible singer and we're really looking forward to her lighting up the stage. We think she's going to be incredible, possibly one of the strongest hosts ever. And of course, we're looking forward to Janet Jackson -- clearly one of the biggest icons, not just in music, but in pop culture. We're thrilled to have her here and her performance is going to be incredible. Very unique. She's not done a performance like this anywhere before. The whole show is jam packed with incredible artists and a lot of potentially mind-blowing moments.

Janet Jackson performing at this year's EMAs is a huge coup for MTV. When did those conversations with her team begin?

Is been a long process, but it's been a very positive process as well. There's a lot of excitement on Janet's end about doing the EMAs and receiving the global icon honor. It's been complicated [to arrange] of course. She's got a big camp and her performances are never straight forward or standard. It's a very unique performance she's planning with an incredible amount of production, a lot of dancers and the medley itself is very diverse musically speaking. So it's been a ride. But it's also been a lot of fun.

Given the vast number of award shows there is today, does it get harder to assemble a strong bill each year?

It's incredibly challenging. We work really hard to put together a line-up that is not only unique to the EMAs, but also separate from the VMAs. To do that when you're fishing from the same resource pool is quite a challenge, but we're really happy with the line-up. It's quite diverse and it definitely speaks to the year in a very strong way. We've got a big global icon in Janet Jackson; Hailee Steinfeld hosting and performing; arguably the biggest electronic artist of the year with Marshmello; Nicki Minaj, who's having an incredible year. We just confirmed Little Mix, Jason Derulo and David Guetta. We have Halsey, Panic At The Disco... So we feel like we've got it all. A really nice encapsulation of 2018.

Alongside the EMAs, you also oversee the VMAs. How do you feel this year's event went?

We were very, very pleased. Number one, it was so good to be back in New York, which is really home base for MTV. Number two, we just had some blockbuster performances. Where else are you going to see Post Malone and Aerosmith perform together? Nicki's performance from the Oculus [Train Station Mall] next to Ground Zero was incredible. Camila Cabello had a big winning evening. We can go on and on. We were thrilled with the VMAS. It was very loud in terms of its reach and I feel like we connected with more fans than ever. And with the EMAs we're going to turn it up again. It will be another big night for MTV and another big night for music.

What's your take on the controversy that surrounded Madonna's tribute to Aretha Franklin at the VMAs?  

If there's one thing you can guarantee, Madonna will be Madonna. We were thrilled to have her. Losing Aretha was incredibly sad and alarmingly close to the show, so we had to move quickly about what we would do. We took a bit of a Hail Mary and called Madonna's camp literally two nights before the show. As luck would have it, she was on a charter flight back to New York and she agreed to come on and say some words. Obviously, with Madonna you don't tell her what to say. You don't script her. And she came out and she did what she always does: She spoke from the heart. Some people connected with it and some people didn't, but at the end of the day we were beyond thrilled to have her on our stage and happy that she shared a personal story about Aretha. But of course it's controversial because it's Madonna. That's why we love her.

How important are the EMAs to Viacom and MTV?

Incredibly important and incredibly successful. Across Viacom we do many events throughout the year, but the MTV VMAs and EMAs are two of the biggest without question and the EMAs are just becoming more relevant and more impactful as the years go on. As the world becomes smaller, with artists from all around the world having an opportunity to blow up on the global stage, the EMAS is one of only a handful of truly global shows. Its ability to connect with a bigger audience each year is becoming increasingly more attractive to the talent community.

This year's event features the introduction of the MTV EMA generation change award, recognizing young people and activists changing the world. In the era of #MeToo, do shows like the EMAs have a duty to reflect changing social norms?  

These events, particularly the EMAs, are really a reflection of the year in pop culture in many ways. Generation change is a big note for us across Viacom and we wanted to use the platform of the EMAs to amplify that message. It's really about celebrating youth culture and their unique ability to impact change. We feel there's no better place than MTV to harness that energy. At the same time, we don't over message the show. Generation change is a very positive message to get across and we're doing it in a very elegant way, but the show will predominantly be about fun, escapism and a direct reflection of pop culture in the year 2018.

The 2018 MTV EMAs are broadcast live on Sunday, Nov. 4, at 9 p.m. CET and will be rebroadcast in the U.S. at 7 p.m. EST.