“I have a few things up in the air,” downplays Jesse Ignjatovic, 46, executive producer of the MTV Video Music Awards, two weeks ahead of the curtain rising at Los Angeles’ Microsoft Theatre. The Aug. 30 event marks the last time MTV veteran Van Toffler, who officially exited as president of the network in April, toplines the telecast. It won’t be a quiet exit, either, seeing how Miley Cyrus is set to host (so far, only The Weeknd is confirmed to be performing). MTV’s hope: Besides upping viewership from a disappointing 8.3 million in 2014 (down 18 percent from 2013), to connect with VMAs of years past, if not the 2013 show necessarily (foam finger, anyone?), then the 2011 edition that featured a pregnant Beyoncé, Lady Gaga in drag and Adele in all her pre-Grammy-sweeping glory.
What has Van Toffler brought to the show, and how do you say goodbye?
He’s the heart and soul of this show. We’re on calls and meetings every week, and he really inspires [everyone]. In terms of my part, I wouldn’t be doing this show if it wasn’t for Van. He was kind enough to allow me to pitch creative in 2007, and I had this crazy idea of taking over a hotel in Las Vegas. He loved it. Van, in a nutshell, wants to go on crazy adventures. So he will be missed. Every artist in the room would say that.
Having Miley Cyrus host seems a risky affair on live TV. How will the network censors deal with her antics?
Miley knows how far she can push things and where it would cross the line. [Whether] it’s language or concepts for a pre-tape that go too far, she’s the first to say, “You probably won’t let me do that.” To this point, there hasn’t been anything where you’d need to have a finger on a button ready to press it … She just likes to have fun, and I think it’s going to carry through the whole show. And, of course, she will throw in some surprises.
I don’t see this as Miley taking the stage and we’re all concerned about what she’s going to say. I think the opposite: I’m excited for what she’ll say and do as host. Miley Cyrus is the epitome of the VMAs.
How will you take advantage of the smaller setting that the 7,100-capacity Microsoft Theater [formerly the Nokia Theatre] offers?
It was important for us to get back into that room where we were in 2011 when we had Beyoncé with the baby bump or Gaga as Jo Calderone or Adele’s performance, when she was solo on the piano and just nailed it. We can do those kinds of moments when the room is not overwhelming in terms of scope and scale. We’ve made an effort to create an environment where we can go very intimate and where the audience can be very close to the action. And by audience, I mean fans, as opposed to music executives.
In your nine years working on the VMAs, which were most special to you?
I do hold Vegas [in 2007] up there in terms of approach. And I love what we did in Brooklyn in 2013 — I thought it was a powerful show in terms of the community, the aesthetic, the design and the way artists embraced it.
Would you ever tie the VMAs into a festival?
Absolutely — that’s an area I would love to explore. Fans want to touch music, they want to experience it as a gathering more than just watching it on your laptop. That really has me excited about the future of music, because young people are so into going to see live music and experiencing it socially with other people.
This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.