‘Our Voice Is Unique’: MTV's president and global head of music talk about increasing music programming at the channel.
Madonna's appearance at MTV's London offices on April 24 for a globally televised special premiering the video for "Medellín" not only reaffirmed MTV's continued ability to attract the biggest names in music, but also signaled a return to the type of 'event' music programming that originally made it one of the world's biggest entertainment brands.
It's something that the Viacom-owned company is looking to build upon in 2019 as part of a new global music strategy that will see MTV double its amount of original music programming in the U.S. and international markets. Included among that are four 'Unplugged" specials, four episodes of docuseries "The Ride" and the launch of new dedicated music channels on streaming service Pluto, which Viacom acquired for $340 million at the start of the year.
Last month MTV launched its first direct-to-consumer subscription video service in the U.S, "MTV Hits," on Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video, while this year will see a fresh reboot of Total Request Live, which returned to MTV in fall 2017 after a nearly 10 year absence.
"Our teams have been working hard on reinventing the content, music and storytelling in a multi-platform way, reaching audiences everywhere they are," MTV president Chris McCarthy tells Billboard of the refocused commitment to original music programming.
Since becoming president in 2016, McCarthy has overturned a five year decline in ratings and led MTV to become the number one U.S. cable network in primetime for people aged 18-34 (according to Viacom). Worldwide, MTV says it is watched in 450 million homes across nearly 180 countries with more than 350 million followers on social media.
Driving MTV's global music strategy is Bruce Gillmer, Viacom's global head of music and talent and co-brand head of MTV International. In an exclusive interview, Billboard spoke with McCarthy and Gillmer about their plans for MTV, competing for eyeballs with YouTube and rebooting TRL for the digital era.
Billboard: MTV has undergone a strong resurgence over the past few years. What's driven the turnaround and how are you looking to build on it?
Chris McCarthy: MTV is in such a great spot today. We have spent the last 3 years really reinventing the business and the brand. It's less about one screen and more about every screen: reinventing the content, music and storytelling in a multi-platform way to reach audiences everywhere they are. We've had tremendous results. We just closed our seventh consecutive quarter of growth, which is our best in our 38-year history. MTV and VH1 combined have 23 of the top 25 unscripted series. We're number one with young audiences on cable and we keep launching more and more channels digitally. Just recently we launched Wild 'N Out hip-hop channel on YouTube and within one month it became the number one hip-hop entertainment site on YouTube with over 75 million views in April.
What are your plans for the network in the year ahead?
Bruce Gillmer: We're doubling down on music globally, increasing programming hours for our original music series and specials by 115%. We're committed to rolling out four "Unplugged" specials a year and four music storytelling vehicles that will air globally. Our music storytelling vehicle of the moment is called "The Ride," and we kicked off the series with a two-part Jennifer Lopez special, which has been a great success [9 million viewers across digital and TV]. We're also doing more specials, as you saw with the live, globally televised MTV music event with Madonna that taped in London, New York, Milan and São Paulo. And we are successfully reviving iconic franchises for new generations, like Yo! MTV Raps, which now has four local versions around the world and more to come.
McCarthy: On [streaming service] Pluto, we're also launching five channels in the U.S. and six new music video channels. Meanwhile, YouTube has allowed us to reach an entirely generation. The way that a 14-year-old watches MTV today is not through the traditional platforms, but the great news is that they are watching us and it's all about getting great content and great music to them everywhere they are. We're seeing growth in mature markets, but on non-traditional platforms.
There's more competition for youth audiences now than at any point in MTV's history. How do you intend to cut through?
Chris McCarthy: The great news is that young audiences are consuming more content than ever before. The challenging part is that there is so much content and so much clutter. That's where having a really strong brand and incredible storytelling breaks through. That's what Bruce and his team have done incredibly well with integrating music across all of our shows. It's a constant thread and fibre throughout everything we do. We've been telling young stories, music stories and artist highlights for almost 40 years. We think that our voice is unique and we provide something different. And it shows in the numbers. It's why we're leading.
One of the biggest criticisms of MTV in recent years is that it prioritized scripted programming and reality shows at the expense of music. Is that a fair criticism?
Bruce Gillmer: There was a moment in time, if you go back 10 years, when content and viewership was in a state of flux. I don't think MTV ever abandoned music… but there was certainly a perception that music was hard to find on MTV for a while. And it was hard to find in certain markets on the main MTV channel. But in that window music was pervasive on all of the digital channels. Now we've figured out a way to move forward and have music as a significant presence on all of our platforms. The brand has really never left [music] behind. It just gravitated towards other platforms for a certain period of time, but we're happy to say that it's all now coming back to roost.
McCarthy: We've always had music at the forefront of everything that we do. We've been an innovator in using music as a storytelling vehicle and expanding it beyond just playing music videos. We're constantly evaluating and evolving and we'll continue to do that.
What role do MTV's international channels – where dedicated regional music programming forms a large part of your output – play in your future plans for the network back home in the U.S.?
McCarthy: The best part about being a global business and being in a different markets is that we are constantly learning and taking the best of every market and bringing it over to the U.S. From a music perspective, what [Bruce and his team] have been doing for so long is incredibly powerful and strong and is a little bit more in line with the origins of MTV. It's been great to build on that and use it as a roadmap to integrate into the U.S.
How much of your music content is produced for linear TV and how much is produced with digital audiences in mind?
Gillmer: It's really a combination. If you look at "Unplugged," that's truly multi-platform where linear TV is definitely key, but the digital platforms are equally as important. "The Ride" format was developed with mobile in mind. It's a very unique format where you've got 44 minutes of storytelling content divided into chapters. You can watch 3 minutes or the whole 44-minute story. We do have some projects in development that are specifically meant for digital short form, but the lion's share of what we're doing is 360.
Having made a high-profile comeback in the fall of 2017, after nearly a decade off air, Total Request Live is undergoing another reboot. What's changed and why?
Gillmer: TRL is returning with a new format, which is TRL in three buckets. On Fridays we'll have "TRL Freshout Friday" where we celebrate new music Friday and anything that's new in the worlds of music and pop culture. We're going to follow that up on Saturdays with "TRL Top 10," which will showcase the hottest videos of the week and that will be followed by a variety of TRL digital shorts throughout the week. It's a brand new TRL for this generation to share and rally behind. We're going to build this into the place where music fans have to come to learn what's coming next.
McCarthy: What was TRL at its core? It was about music and it was about fandom and that doesn't need to be constrained in the traditional format. You can take that spirit and totally reinvent it in a way that allows for both short form and long form [content] and incredible reach.
What's been the record industry's response to your new plans for MTV?
Gillmer: The reaction from the music industry has been very positive and enthusiastic. With TRL in its new form what happens is that MTV once again becomes a destination in Times Square where labels can bring their artists on a consistent basis, connect them with their fans and showcase their great new music. TRL really becomes ground zero in many cases for labels and artists when they're setting marketing plans for their new project. We've found that the labels are overwhelmed to have that back. They're very happy to have this opportunity again because we're such a trusted destination.
YouTube is your single biggest competitor for youth audiences, but also hosts a lot of MTV content. Do you consider it a friend or foe?
McCarthy: Absolute friend. It's a great conduit for us to reach young audiences. It's not about one platform and either/or. It's all about more and that's the great part about having all these new spaces, from YouTube to Facebook to Pluto to traditional cable. We have liberated the MTV brand from any one platform and are making great content with great music and reaching audiences everywhere they are.