Interview Date: Tuesday October 28, 2003
Interviewer: John Higgins
Interview location: New York City
Collection: Hauser Collection
HIGGINS: We’re here today with Tom Freston who is the chairman of MTV Networks, has been at MTV since the very earliest days and now pretty much runs a big worldwide portfolio of channels. It was like 17 the last time I looked.
FRESTON: 97 worldwide now, behind ten different brands.
HIGGINS: Yeah, but you’re counting all that syndicated stuff.
FRESTON: No! 97 different 24-hour feeds around the world that are either MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon or any of our other networks.
HIGGINS: So, we’ve known each other for a long time and I was going through some of your background and some details, and something leapt out to me that I had not really realized before. You haven’t had a promotion since 1987.
FRESTON: That’s right. I’ve had the same job.
HIGGINS: You have had this same job since Frank Biondi named you chairman of MTV Networks. Underachiever? Do you feel like you haven’t done enough in your life?
FRESTON: Well, when you find something that you really like you sort of stay with it, and this has been great because the job has changed every few years because the industry has been so dynamic. All of the sudden we’re in international business, online business, new channels come our way or we buy them or launch them, so I’m not so ambitious that I would feel I had to move along. So I’ve been here 16 years in this job.
HIGGINS: Right, and how long at the network total?
FRESTON: I started on March 17, 1980.
HIGGINS: You’re almost at your silver anniversary.
FRESTON: God! Yeah.
HIGGINS: That’ll be a good party.
FRESTON: I never would have thought.
HIGGINS: Now, you grew up in Connecticut so you’re a preppie boy.
FRESTON: I was never a preppie but I knew some.
HIGGINS: You were in the ’70s in Connecticut and you weren’t a preppie?
FRESTON: I was in the ’60s. I left Connecticut in 1963 when I went to college and never came back.
HIGGINS: You were in advertising for not very long.
FRESTON: About a year and a half, two years.
HIGGINS: How did you start out wanting to go that direction at first?
FRESTON: Well, I got out of college and went to a business school at NYU and when I got out of there I took about a year and a half off, sort of worked and bummed around, bartender, that type of thing.
HIGGINS: Where was that? Where were you bumming around?
FRESTON: Aspen, Colorado; Mexico; spent a season working in the Virgin Islands; Martha’s Vineyard – it was great. It was something I had delayed and always wanted to do, but I came back and got a job in advertising because I thought advertising would be sort of a creative application of business. This is now 1971, I guess, 1970-’71, and I got a job at Benton & Bowles as an assistant account executive on GI Joe. This was sort of while the Vietnam War was going on, and then I had a succession of other accounts: Perel Concentrate, Charmin Toilet Paper… Actually they assigned me to Charmin Toilet Paper and that’s when I sort of quit, so my tenure in advertising… and a lot of Proctor & Gamble type business, packaged goods stuff.
HIGGINS: So Perel was okay, but Charmin was over the edge?
FRESTON: I guess I got increasingly frustrated and alienated about being in what appeared to be a slow moving business, a business I had thought would have moved fast and been a lot more creative. There was an awful lot of testing and time spent just to talk about changing a word or two in a commercial, but it was very good experience, as it turned out.
HIGGINS: Why? What did you take away from it?
FRESTON: Well, you really did learn a lot about organization, written communications, strategic thinking, a real focus on those areas. It was very tightly organized. It was like, I suppose, going to a tough school for a few years that you never like when you’re there, but when you get out of it you realize that you did learn a few very important things.
HIGGINS: But it wasn’t the creative energy juices that you were learning?
FRESTON: No, no, it was more on the strategy side, organization side, written communication, that type of thing.
HIGGINS: Okay, so after that you went off on more adventure.
FRESTON: Yeah, then I left and went off to Europe and ended up going through the Sahara Desert, traveling around the world for about another 16 months, ended up in Afghanistan and India and I fell in love immediately with that part of that world and started a business there so I could support myself there, stay there and have an interesting life and travel about. I did that for about 8 years. We designed and manufactured clothes, sold them around the world.
HIGGINS: Let me back up a second. So you went from MBA school, right, to bumming around and getting drunk and tending bar in Mexico…
FRESTON: Well, I don’t know about the getting drunk part, but I was bumming around, yeah.
HIGGINS: And then you went to the straight job, so you had supposedly flushed that all out of your system and after a year and a half of the straight job you went off and did this again.
FRESTON: Just didn’t get it out of my system, much to my parents’ chagrin.
HIGGINS: What was their reaction when you went for the second time?
FRESTON: Well, you know, they were good, “follow your heart”, but they were a little worried at that point, and they ended up being very proud of me because the company that I set up, and this was a total entrepreneurial thing, I had a partner, I mean we would be regularly featured in Vogue and Mademoiselle and all these magazines and we had a decent business going. We really were able to take the chaos of what was in India and Afghanistan and make a business out of it and be successful.
HIGGINS: Who was your partner?
FRESTON: I had a partner named Joe Potter who was like an old friend who had inherited some money, which we needed because I didn’t have any.
HIGGINS: He was over there?
FRESTON: No, he was here, and I sort of became the guy over there. We’d go back and forth but I spent the bulk of my time over there.
HIGGINS: And you were looking for manufacturers?
FRESTON: We would hire designers, we set up houses in Kabul and Delhi, we set up factories with exporters there and we would design clothes, we’d work sometimes with retailers in the U.S. or in the U.K., we would go on trips looking for fabrics and it was pretty exciting. It was a lot of fun.
HIGGINS: But you weren’t selling burkas? You weren’t shipping bright blue burkas back to the States?
FRESTON: We actually did, for awhile, buy burkas and we would cut the heads off, the part that goes over the woman’s head, and we would make shirts out of the rest of them, or capes or things. You could buy them for $3 or $4. They haven’t changed the model at all, as I notice now on television.
HIGGINS: They haven’t gotten any more stylish?
FRESTON: No, they’re the same.
HIGGINS: So you were trying to be very fashionable, you weren’t just trying to do hippie clothes.
FRESTON: No, no, we actually did what they call junior sportswear. We would work with the better stores, they would often give us designs, sometimes they would be quasi knockoffs from big designers of the day, lots of drawstring pants, soft fabrics and lots of colors. There was a real market for it. At the time, you see, air freight was just really starting out. It was the advent of the 747 so you could take a bunch of stuff that cost $4 a piece that you made in India, and then in 24 hours it would land in New York where you could sell it for $15, and I was very struck by that. How you could just change the value of something by moving its physical location in an airplane in less than a day, and we were on the cusp of the global era then. The world was just really starting to open up and get a lot more interconnected with air freight and technology and telecommunications.
HIGGINS: Did you scrap that business or sell that business?
FRESTON: Well, we had a series of things happen. The fashion business historically has been boom or bust, but I had three things happen: one was there was a coup in Afghanistan that preceded the Russian invasion of ’79; that make it kind of hard to do business there when people started calling you comrade in Kabul, so we moved a lot of our business to Delhi and India was suffering sort of from the ripple effects of the OPEC crisis and there was a lot of inflation and unrest and delays and power shortages and it got difficult. Bu the killer was the United States had created and imposed textile quotas on shipments from India, and being undercapitalized and not being Indian nationals, we did not get a lot of the quota when it was allocated. In fact, we didn’t even know it was being allocated, so basically the business was sort of shut down and I sold it, came back to the States in a good amount of debt and started looking for a job.
HIGGINS: So at the end of the day you didn’t make money?
FRESTON: I had made and lost a lot of money and in the end I was in debt and I sort of came back to New York with my tail between my legs after these high riding several years there, and had to start anew looking for a job. So I bought What Color Is Your Parachute.
HIGGINS: What color was it?
FRESTON: You know, it was a great book. It really helped me focus my thinking as to what I was going to do next in my life.
HIGGINS: What was that focus, then? What was that change in your thinking?
FRESTON: Well, the focus was that you can have several careers in your life and you can do several things, and that you have skills you develop as you grow older that are transferable to other types of businesses. You can be a teacher and a construction worker and do certain things, so if you develop certain things you can sell yourself, sell those skills into another industry, but that should be an industry that you’re passionate about because you should really be the one making the choice, so you should look for a job that really aligns itself with your natural desires, likes and interests, and you should try additionally to find a job that’s in an industry that is ascendant. In other words, in 1980 you wouldn’t want to get a job working for Chrysler where there probably wouldn’t be jobs created or any kind of mobility, but the cable industry and the new media revolution of the day, that would have been a place where jobs would be created, careers could move along, so I went about this in a methodical way and my main love in life, really, was music.
HIGGINS: So what were your other areas? Were you just picking music or were there four or five other areas of interest?
FRESTON: No, I really said I want to get a job somehow related to music because music was first, second and third in my life as something I loved outside of traveling and living in Asia, and after having had that experience where I really loved my job and career, I really didn’t want to settle for anything less than that the second time around. So I said, if I immerse myself in this world and learn about it in a methodical way and do my research, sooner or later I will find a job there that will be exciting to me.
HIGGINS: So how much were you immersed in music, in the local music, in Afghanistan and India?
FRESTON: I was very interested in the music over there. I still have a great collection of Asian music, north Indian music, Persian music, but I did know a lot of people, including my brother, who were in the record industry in the ’70s and I lived in New York and I was a lifelong rock, folk, whatever, jazz…
HIGGINS: But it’s not like you were in Kabul chewing khat and listening to the local musicians?
FRESTON: Well, I did a bit of that, yeah. I mean that would be a thing you would do at night. Hearing local music was one of the few things you could do at night. There really weren’t any discos or clubs or anything at that time. You would probably go out and listen to some Afghan duo.
HIGGINS: So how did you hit upon MTV?
FRESTON: Someone told me about this company that had started as a joint venture between American Express and Warner Communications that was starting these specialized channels and they had an idea for a video music channel. Coincident with that, there was an article in Billboard Magazine about video music, which I was familiar with from my days in Europe; I’d seen music videos. They were largely unknown at the time to the American audience, but in Europe where there was not a lot of commercial television, they would play these things in record stores to help promote album sales, and it was seen as a new art form at the time. But I found these people and got an interview and basically pestered them until I got the job. It came about at a time when if I’d come a week later or a week earlier, maybe the job wouldn’t have been there.
HIGGINS: Were they in New York at this point or were they still in Ohio?
FRESTON: They had just opened up in New York.
HIGGINS: Good for you, right? Would you have gone to Ohio?
FRESTON: Well, they say about life and timing – I hit them at exactly the right week. They’d just gotten money approved and they started hiring the first people they could see, almost. No, I would not have wanted to work in Ohio probably.
HIGGINS: So what did you come on as? What did you pitch yourself as?
FRESTON: I said, “I’ll do anything. I’ll do anything.” I basically sold myself as an entrepreneur who was very excited about this idea, who thought it could be really groundbreaking and successful, would work real hard, desperately needed a job and had some reference that these people knew they could check me out on. I think they were looking at the time… they wouldn’t hire anyone from the conventional television business, so they were hiring school teachers, beatniks, all kinds of odds and ends. I fit right in.
HIGGINS: Why didn’t they want anybody from TV – for creativity or because they spent too much money?
FRESTON: They said, “We’re going to create a new television model that would be low cost, and it would not… you know, if we hired anyone who had been with PBS or ABC they would just have brought too many bad habits with them. They wouldn’t have been able to even think like this, so let’s get people who have no experience because maybe with people with no experience we can better create this new model and there won’t be a bunch of people sitting around saying no, we can’t do that.”
HIGGINS: Now who was making that decision?
FRESTON: That was a guy named John Lacke at the time. He was the guy who basically hired me, and then I ended up working for Bob Pittman.
HIGGINS: So was it John that had kind of set this structure of totally new TV, we’re not going to do it the old way at all?
FRESTON: Yeah. They had a real vision for the company then that I still use today. It’s still valid, which would be specialized programming and low cost production model. They planned to have a movie channel which still exists called The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, which they picked up from Warner Amex Cable and had been developed in Columbus, Ohio, and the idea was to develop this music channel, and then they had an idea for a shopping channel and a game channel and they would have these vertical channels that would basically take share from the three broadcasters.
HIGGINS: Okay, so you’ve come back from Asia, essentially, the Middle East, and you’ve been working on your own, with your buddy, you’ve been doing this Free Willy stuff, and you’re going to come back and you’re going to work for American Express and Warner Brothers! You’re going into a very, very corporate environment. Didn’t that give you a moment of head shaking?
FRESTON: Well, first of all, I was desperate for a job, and I was also looking for being in a larger company because you know, after awhile it’s hard being an under-funded entrepreneur, or undercapitalized, and I said, “You know, if I can work with some like-minded people, it wouldn’t be so bad,” a little more security. I was broke and in debt. However, even though we were owned by Warner Communications and American Express I don’t think anybody in those companies could even find where our offices were because they set up this small entrepreneurial unit, there were a handful of people there, they were all very unconventional thinkers, it was a freewheeling, wild time. It could have been a lot more corporate. We had very little rules, regulations, systems. Once we tried to figure out what are the names of the people who work here? We almost couldn’t create a list like that. The first few years were very… It’s sort of like when you would read later about those internet startups. It would be similar to that; lots of people in hotel rooms, eating pizza and working 24/7.
HIGGINS: Where were your offices at that point?
FRESTON: We had offices in a couple of hotels in mid-town, and then we had offices at 75 Rockefeller Center for a little while and then we went to 1133, which was at 43rd Street, then we bounced around for a bunch of years. We had a studio by the Lincoln Tunnel, and we had many homes in those early years.
HIGGINS: So your first job was what at MTV?
FRESTON: I was a director of marketing for MTV. The marketing department was one person.
HIGGINS: Was there a manager, was there a vice-president?
HIGGINS: So what stage was that? Was MTV on the air at this point?
FRESTON: No, no. Actually we started developing it in like August ’80, no I think it was October ’80, and we went on the air in August ’81. So there was a bunch of months when we were just sort of planning it, a very small group. We didn’t have a lot of money so there weren’t a lot of people around.
HIGGINS: So who else was in the hotels with you?
FRESTON: Well, there was Bob Pittman, who was my boss; John Sykes, who now runs the Infinity Radio Group; Fred Siebert, he was the director of on-air promotion, a real genius and unconventional thinker and he has his own company now, makes animation for us at Nickelodeon is one of the things he does; Robert Morton, who went on to be the executive producer for the David Letterman Show for many, many years, he basically did the stage production work. There was Carolyn Baker, she handled talent relations; Sue Steinberg, she was another producer, she ended up working for Guber Peters. That was pretty much the initial core group.
HIGGINS: So what did you think MTV was at this point? It was going to be a collection of music videos, which there were probably…?
HIGGINS: That’s about 10 times what I was going to suggest. So there’s 300 videos…
FRESTON: Half of those were pretty bad.
HIGGINS: I remember seeing these when I was in high school in Miami. You would see Bat Out of Hell is the one that you’d see in the movie theaters, in the artsy movie theaters, and that was probably mid-70s. So what did you see? Did you think you were going to put on 300 music videos and that’s what you were going to do for the first six months, or what were you thinking?
FRESTON: Well, our hope was that the 300 music videos, no one was going to watch them all in a row and it would be kind of like radio where you could play… you know a radio station can get by many, many months playing 300 records… and we would have other things there as well. We would have concerts, we would talk about other things that we were doing, but the bulk of it would be music videos with VJs, with the whole new look and style for television, very much against the prevailing style at the time, sort of the nightline, star field animation, cold animation look. We actually went back and did a lot of our original promotion work with full cell animation, which hadn’t been seen for awhile, like the old Looney Toon cartoons, hand-drawn stuff, and try to be irreverent and have this attitude and spirit about it. So we saw it really as a unique combination of music and television, and it hadn’t been done that way before. Television had usually presented music as here’s somebody coming on in the middle of the Ed Sullivan Show following a comedian or something. This would be more like the radio format, and it’s hard to imagine now but it was such a radical and innovative idea at the time and the beauty was it was so simple, but it was basically taking two things that its audience, which then was really the baby boomers, music and television, two things people really loved and grew up with, and it was sort of rock music at the time really, and putting them together in this new way behind this new art form that had really developed.
HIGGINS: Well, and it’s not like channels starting up today adapt one program, like the Food Network started up, Julia Child was on in 1963, in the mid-90s the Food Network said, “Okay, we’ll do Julia Child and we’ll do 24 hours of cooking shows.” The audience all knew what a cooking show was. Your audience and your cable operators had no clue what a music video was, right?
FRESTON: Yeah, that was one of the issues. Really MTV, of all the things on cable today, the music video is one of the only really true program forms. People had seen news, seen sports, seen cooking – they hadn’t really seen the music videos, and they were very enthralling in the early days and I would see that phenomenon replay as we would launch around the world in subsequent years. The first time people see them it seems like a whole new… part of the modern world or something. But yeah, we were taking advantage of one of the few new program forms that’s come along.
HIGGINS: When you talk about the animation, you mean these crazy seven, ten second bumpers between…?
FRESTON: Right, what we used to call IDs and so forth. That was really something that added a lot of personality to the network and gave it an image of sort of an alternative type of place on the dial.
HIGGINS: That was a very big signature for the channel for many years, but certainly in the early years. That’s the stuff that I remember from watching it.
FRESTON: That’s the stuff we really liked and we got good at it and it kind of was like our first step as we began to create our own programming, but after awhile we got people like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, David Sale, artists would come to us and say, “Hey, we want to do some of these,” and they’d basically do them for free.
HIGGINS: And you liked that a lot!
FRESTON: Well, we liked that a lot.
HIGGINS: How much of your money were you spending on these little IDs?
FRESTON: Not much. We weren’t spending much money on anything. We didn’t have much money, which is a great way to get stuff done, which is don’t give people much money to begin with, but we were for many years destined to fail in the eyes of our parents and we were not allowed a lot of money to spend until around ’84. So we created our logo for $900, the MTV logo.
HIGGINS: In house?
FRESTON: No, we went to a company called Manhattan Design, who themselves had a great logo – it was a man and then it had a plus sign and then there was a hat and there was a sign and a T. Clever people downtown, they were in TriBeCa and we asked them to develop some logo ideas and they came up with the MTV no iconic logo and it was like $900.
HIGGINS: They didn’t get a piece of the action on the merchandising, right?
FRESTON: No! We said that’s all we had, which wasn’t far from the truth at the time.
HIGGINS: So you’re Director of Marketing. So, at launch, what does that mean?
FRESTON: Well, my responsibility was sort of initially a lot of the off-air stuff, trying to work with the sales people who were getting us distribution, convincing cable operators to carry us. I would help them with marketing materials, advertising…
HIGGINS: Because Siebert is doing the on-air promotion.
FRESTON: Yes, he was, and I would do the off-air promotion, which would be television advertising, radio advertising, print advertising, tie-ins with record stores, tie-ins with radio stations. My job, as I saw it, was since we didn’t have a lot of money – we had to back a million dollars when we launched the service – I picked four markets that were in the middle of the country, because we weren’t in New York or LA or Boston or San Francisco, but it was Tulsa, Des Moines, Wichita and Syracuse, New York, and those markets had cable systems that largely covered the whole city and they were already signed up to take us, some of the few systems that would, so we wanted to go in there with a big bang out of the box and see if we could make an early success story and then parlay that as a way to get more distribution and increase momentum, get record companies to give us videos and advertisers and sort of keep things going. So I spent a lot of early time out in the field, so as MTV became successful I was one of the first guys to see that actually happen.
HIGGINS: So in those four markets what were you doing?
FRESTON: We would buy a lot of television advertising and radio advertising and try to do some local stuff with the cable operator, I mean nothing that sophisticated, but we’d have a presence there. We’d do a lot of news stories and you know, I would go there like a week or two after it would start and we’d get back in New York and we wouldn’t know what the heck was going on because no one here got it. It was like we assembled this thing, shot it up to a satellite and it just disappeared into a black hole, but actually in these cities it was having its initial impact on radio stations that would start getting requests for things like Duran Duran or Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats or a lot of bands they’d never heard of before because people were seeing them on MTV, everybody was talking about it, no one had seen anything like it. If you’d go to town – I remember going to Tulsa with John Sykes and he had on an MTV button and everybody wanted it, the bellhop, the car rental guy, the lady at the desk, it was unbelievable. You’d go to the record stores and the record stores were all sold out or had had requests for these acts on MTV that no one had ever heard of before. Really no big artists were making music videos so we just had these oddball, kind of new wave type artists that we would be playing – Squeeze, and so forth.
HIGGINS: When did the record companies start paying attention?
FRESTON: Well, in the beginning only a couple really embraced us as a positive thing. CBS and MCA, as an example, they didn’t want to give any videos, they wanted us to pay for them. David Geffen, he had Geffen Records, he was an early supporter. The Warner labels, of course, against the good will, against the thinking of some of the people at the labels, but they began paying attention when we were able to show some of these early success stories of all of the sudden they would see they were selling all these Squeeze records in Des Moines, Iowa and they were wondering what the hell was going on. They realized that these music videos were actually very successful in imaging the band and getting people to want the record.
HIGGINS: So how fast was the distribution expansion? Who was doing distribution at that time?
FRESTON: There was a guy named Mark Booth, he headed up the sales for MTV and he worked with a sales organization. We had six or seven regional offices. At its peak, when we started the I Want My MTV campaign it was slow. We launched with two million subs, maybe after a year we had three or four million, and then we were frustrated because the cable operators were not lining up to take MTV.
HIGGINS: Did they not understand it or did they just not care?
FRESTON: They didn’t understand it. They were not in the demo, even though they only had 25-30 channels at the time there was always a line of people wanting to get on those channels. They were more excited about the Weather Channel than about MTV. So they just didn’t believe anyone was going to sit around and watch music videos.
HIGGINS: Well, and of course the big problem with MTV that every music video wannabe has always had is that the decision maker in the household is one of the parents, you get to pick which parent, and they’re not the audience, so the cable operator doesn’t think he’s going to sell any cable by putting on a music video service.
FRESTON: That’s right. They’d much rather add another sports channel, another movie channel.
HIGGINS: Or education. They love that stuff.
FRESTON: Yes. So it was difficult and that was part of the thing in the beginning. MTV was a new idea. Everyone said they didn’t want it, didn’t like it and it wouldn’t work, so you spent most of your time trying to offset that.
HIGGINS: How did the “I Want My MTV” campaign come out?
FRESTON: Well, we were looking at the fact that we were very successful in these markets that had originally taken us. We knew that the consumers liked us; the audience liked us – kids, young adults, they liked MTV – but we couldn’t seem to convince anyone else, so we decided the way to do this would be let’s try and take our destiny in our own hands and rather than try and convince the cable operator to take us, let’s get the audience that’s very active about this and involved in the channel, let’s let them know it’s here and have them call the cable operator and request it.
HIGGINS: So how did that idea spring out? Did it come from one person?
FRESTON: We worked with George Lois, the famous adman, who actually had done “I Want My Maypo” back in the ’50s and a lot of other groundbreaking accounts, a real iconoclast kind of ad sales guy, explained the business problem to him, and we decided what we kind of needed to do was to go over the head of the cable operator and try and appeal to customers and it would be great to explain to them what the hell this was and it would be especially great if we could get big rock stars to sort of validate it just by touching the logo or being in the commercial. So they came back to us and said, the man who said “I Want My Maypo”, he said the solution to this campaign is “I Want My MTV”, and it was sort of history from there. We decided to do the campaign.
HIGGINS: And it worked.
FRESTON: It worked. We would go into a market for three or four weeks and advertise it, at the end of that three or four weeks every cable operator in town would have added MTV, we’d move to another market. We would add a million subs a month. We’d just roll across the country.
HIGGINS: So at first, what was your apprehension, and particularly Mark Booth’s apprehension, about pissing off the cable operators?
FRESTON: Yes, we said, “You know, they don’t like this.” But we would always say… there was always one cable operator in some town that was carrying it and we could always say, “Well, we’re running this advertising to support him and try to get people in his cable system who don’t subscribe to cable to sign up to his cable and get it.” So that would be the excuse we would basically give out, but we knew that it was really the other cable operators who weren’t carrying it were our real target, and we decided, listen, we’re going to be out of business or dead unless we get some distribution because American Express is going to shut us down.
HIGGINS: Right, and what’s the point of being worried about annoying the people who aren’t doing business with you?
FRESTON: Because we’re going to be out of business ourselves, and out of jobs!
HIGGINS: How much money were you losing at this point?
FRESTON: Well, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money these days, but probably we had cumulative losses of maybe 25-30 million dollars before we broke even over the course of a couple years, maybe a bit more than that. I’m unsure about some of those early numbers because I was really not the numbers guy then, but I think maybe 40 million dollars would have been the cumulative investment before we broke even. The first couple years we’d only do 1 or 2 million dollars in revenue.
HIGGINS: So it was a big black hole. It was just like an internet company.
FRESTON: It was like an internet company and at the time Warner was going through the horror of Atari which had imploded, needed money.
HIGGINS: They owned Atari Video Games and…
FRESTON: 50% of us.
HIGGINS: Right, and they had completely distorted… people would go to jail for what was going on in the financials at Atari at that time.
FRESTON: That’s right.
HIGGINS: Right, they were channel stuffing, they were doing all this stuff…
FRESTON: And American Express had lost a lot of money and they were also together in on the cable system venture which was losing even more money, and so what had appeared at once to be this great joint venture was hemorrhaging money much to the chagrin of shareholders and board members, and we were like this… who needs this little music channel?
HIGGINS: These crazy guys running a black hole.
HIGGINS: So the “I Want My MTV” campaign, so this would only run locally?
FRESTON: Yes. We never ran it on a network basis. It would go market by market, spot TV, primarily.
HIGGINS: In Denver there was a big fight because you really wanted John Malone. How did he react when you started running those?
FRESTON: Well, I don’t remember any phone calls made. We had a long series of negotiations with TCI and they ended up taking us for no license fee and putting us in some systems. I think the real issue with Malone came later when we decided at some point we had to start charging for the service, so Bob Pittman and David Horowitz flew out there and had a meeting with John Malone and tried to cut a deal to convince him that what you were getting for free that you didn’t want in the first place now we’re going to charge you money for, looking like an old bait and switch kind of situation, but an accommodation was made.
HIGGINS: So where did you go from there? How did you rise in the organization because you went from Director of Marketing and in about four years you were running the whole nine yards?
FRESTON: At that point in time, if you were in a small company that was growing fast you can move up because what also happens is a lot of people at the top get fired or quit or burn out, so there’s significant turnover and what happened was I went from running marketing on MTV and then Nickelodeon to… the fellow who was running the affiliate sales group moved on and they gave me his job, so now I ran the sales operation as well as marketing, and then this fellow had… there was a guy named David Hilton, he moved on to General Manager of MTV and he was fired by Bob Pittman and they gave me that job in 1985. So in 1985 I became the General Manager/Head of Programming, for MTV and then subsequently VH1, and then in 1986, after Viacom had bought the company, Bob Pittman had left and they anointed me one of the co-Presidents of the company; I was a President of the entertainment division, and then those guys at Viacom were displaced when Sumner Redstone came in, in 1987 they had a big leveraged buy out kind of battle and I became the President and CEO and I’ve had that job ever since.
HIGGINS: Let me back up for a second. Okay, so Turner. It was in ’83, I believe?
HIGGINS: So you’d been on the air a couple years, clearly catching a good buzz, the “I Want My MTV” campaign had gotten you a great profile nationally, and you’re playing all these what would today be extremely tame, not very sexy or impressive videos that Ted Turner decided were satanic and he saw that between you guys being satanic and you having a great business that it was a business he wanted to get into. So he started…?
FRESTON: The Cable Music Channel.
HIGGINS: The Cable Music Channel.
FRESTON: You know, an oft forgotten chapter in Ted’s great legacy of successes because it only lasted 103 days, and its premise was, “Hey, they’re charging you ten cents, we’re free. They’re with Satan and we’re not.” We had weak contracts at the time so the name of their game was, “Mr. Cable Operator, switch out the satanic service that’s costing you a dime and take our non-satanic service for free.”
HIGGINS: Now, was it satanic because of the videos or was it satanic because of the ten cents a subscriber per month?
FRESTON: Well, more the latter. I think Ted just used that as an eye catching excuse to go after us, so he was going after the heart of our business because without any distribution we wouldn’t have a business. So what we did was we said, “Hmm, we’ve go to like change the battle.” So we created VH1 and we said, “You already have a music channel. That’s a state of the art music channel. The question now is, what’s the second music channel you add? You can either add Cable Music Channel or VH1, and you’d be better off adding VH1 because it complements MTV, it’s two different music formats, whereas Cable Music Channel is likely to play a lot of the same music, and we’ll give you that channel for free in exchange for a long term deal for the both of them.”
HIGGINS: So you were on 30 day deals with most operators at this point, right? If that long.
FRESTON: Umm-hmm, so we sought to convert those to three-year deals, rolling Nickelodeon, which was emerging as a powerful network on its own, into the play so we’d have MTV/VH1/Nickelodeon deals, but we made the battle between Cable Music Channel and VH1, and that’s something they tried to resist and resist and we were able to really forestall their distribution and after 100 days they went out of business.
HIGGINS: How did you distinguish VH1 from MTV at that time?
FRESTON: You know, we would play Willie Nelson, Julio Iglesias videos, you know, videos for an older audience. In radio terms you’d call it light FM or adult contemporary and it was how we started off VH1, playing stuff that was obviously different from MTV.
HIGGINS: And you were Head of Programming at this point?
HIGGINS: One of the chapters often told at that time was the MTV not playing black music, and not like black music like rap, black music like R&B pop. From your perspective what was that and what was that posture?
FRESTON: There were a lot of internal disagreements about that and I’ve got to say there were some merits to the arguments against MTV at the time, but they try to say… there was rock music, which at the time there were very few people… you know, rock, guitar-driven music… Jimmy Hendrix, he was dead; there was Prince, a couple of other people, Garland Jeffries. Most black performers were in the R&B field, soul music field, and MTV programmers at the time, I wasn’t one, were making the case that we don’t play that, that’s a different format, we would have another channel for that, that music will alienate the rock fans. That had been the experience in the very segmented world of radio, for what it’s worth. So we were sort of pushed and prodded into it. The idea that MTV could be a big tent and play music from all places in the culture really started in about 1985-86, but it was the Michael Jackson… there was a big issue with Michael Jackson.
HIGGINS: So you basically saw it as the time as a pop-rock… you saw it like an AOR station or a pop station? What did you see?
FRESTON: Yeah, basically AOR – album oriented rock. The radio programmers who were programming MTV at the time made the analogy to album oriented radio, the big sort of mid-west format of the day and that was the big rock format, very few black performers. As MTV became a national phenomenon it really grated on a lot of black performers – “How come we’re not on MTV?” They didn’t buy the “Well, it doesn’t fit our format” argument, there must be some underlying issues of racism. I don’t really think there was racism there. I think it was a very parochial look of trying to translate a strict radio format onto television. The problem is in radio the listener could go punching buttons and get R&B and Soul music very easily; on TV we really didn’t have any direct competition and conceivably you could have played all this stuff. In fact, when MTV began to broaden its format parameters and play different types of music the audience only got larger. Michael Jackson took MTV to all times ratings highs. When we were really pioneer, playing rap music even ahead of radio in the ’85-’86 years, again we saw ratings spikes. So, the original presumption was wrong, but it wasn’t really done for racial reasons from what I could ascertain.
HIGGINS: It was done for the same things we hate about radio today – to narrow of a play list.
FRESTON: That’s right. That’s really true. When people see a shred of success, as we did on MTV and think they have stumbled onto some formula that came about through innovative thinking then people get overprotective and conservative about it. I’ve seen it happen time and time again here. Whenever you’re really successful people freeze up and start thinking about that doesn’t fit, so any sense of experimentation can dry up without proper management.
HIGGINS: So it becomes structured because it becomes money instead of…?
FRESTON: That’s the way people get. It’s the job of a manager in a place like this to try and stir that pot up and get people to continue to take chances.
HIGGINS: So finally Warner and Amex decide MTV Networks… we’ve got to get out of this, we’ve got to sell this thing. All the networks except for… VH1 is not very well established at this point; MTV and Nickelodeon are very well established. Were you part of the group that tried to buy it out? What was your position at the time?
FRESTON: Well, I was the General Manager of MTV. There was a leveraged buyout… well, first of all, they took us public, like 1/3 of it went public, they tried to spin us out, and 1/3 went public so there was actually a stock option thing and that created a whole bunch of issues internally because some people got more than other people, some people were thought to be hogging stock options. So all of the sudden there became some money class, and then the talk was…
HIGGINS: Were you the money class or the no money class?
FRESTON: I was sort of in the no money class, yeah. The money class was a very thin layer. But then it was we’re just going to do a leveraged buyout, which was sort of the thing of the day on Wall Street, so there was discussions were Forest & Little to do an LBO and that was led by David Horowitz and Bob Pittman, and they thought they had worked out a deal with Steve Ross at Warner, but he got on a… I remember there was a day in the springtime he got on a helicopter to fly out to East Hampton ready to sell to us, when he got off on the other end he decided to sell to Viacom for an extra 50 cents because I think he had decided he had somehow been betrayed and this LBO had happened behind his back.
HIGGINS: Extra 50 cents per share.
HIGGINS: So he thought you were betraying him, you guys were betraying him?
HIGGINS: And what did you all think?
FRESTON: Well, we thought boy, we lost out big time. We now got sold to this company Viacom and they didn’t seem to have the right understanding of this business and we don’t know these guys. We could have been masters of our own fate and everyone would have been a significant owner of the company.
HIGGINS: Now who was running Viacom at that time?
FRESTON: It was run by a guy named Terry Elkes. It was a different management than what we have today.
HIGGINS: Right, this was pre-Sumner.
HIGGINS: So you now you’re part of Viacom and the Ed Horowitz and Terry and…?
FRESTON: It was Jules Heimewitz, Ken Gorman and Terry Elkes and Ralph Baruch.
HIGGINS: So where did you move in this period? Were you still GM of MTV or did you move up?
FRESTON: I moved up. Initially I stayed there and then after a few months Bob Pittman left and they made me a co-President of the company with a fellow named Bob Rigonte.
HIGGINS: Now Bob Pittman left? Bob Pittman got squeezed out by new management? How did that work?
FRESTON: I think Bob just decided the bloom was off the rose, he was moving out, it didn’t go the way he wanted, which was the LBO, and he had an opportunity to go get a big deal at MCA, which he took.
HIGGINS: Right. That was a TV deal at that time, right?
FRESTON: Yes, TV, record company, sort of a multimedia deal.
HIGGINS: When you’re the guy leading the LBO and it fails, you’re not going to get along with the new buyer, so that’s no big surprise at all. So, where did you see things at that point?
FRESTON: Well, I thought I’d give it a chance. I had already had a career and left and showed up here, and a lot of my contemporaries left because everyone said, “Hey, this party’s over. We don’t like these new guys. They’ve got a bad approach to the business. They’re going to run it dry.” I said, “I’m going to hang on a bit.” I didn’t really have anywhere else to go; I was in love with MTV and the company and the idea. I thought maybe things could turn out nicely. Who knows? So I stayed and it wasn’t that great to be working with that group, but soon a new chapter began with Sumner Redstone.
HIGGINS: Now those guys weren’t around… it was only what? From ’85 to ’87 that they were…?
FRESTON: Well, ’86, I think. ’86 to July ’87, and half of that time was fully taken up with the takeover battle, so I never really… they were really not managing the company in any kind of way. It was more this day-to-day big Wall Street battle.
HIGGINS: Of course Viacom up to this point was a very well established company, had been the syndication of CBS, and had gotten spun out.
FRESTON: And we were a very small piece of that company at that point in time.
HIGGINS: Although it was a 500 million dollar deal.
FRESTON: They bought us for 500 million dollars, but if you looked at our business compared to what they called their station group or their syndication business, which was The Cosby Show and that type of stuff – they had the CBS library – we were a small piece of the business. We were a little cable operation.
HIGGINS: Right. And then Sumner bought it, Sumner came in and made a takeover big for Viacom and that was another pitched fight that those guys had to defend themselves against.
FRESTON: Yeah, that was a big fight, went on for many months.
HIGGINS: Sumner has told me that he wasn’t paying a lot of attention to MTV. Was he in his 60s at that point?
FRESTON: He was 67.
HIGGINS: So, it was off his radar.
FRESTON: Yeah, he didn’t know much about it. He had called me up at one point during the takeover battle and asked to meet with me up at his hotel, at the Hotel Carlyle, in New York City, and I went up and made the case to him what it was we did, with some investment we could become this great worldwide company with a worldwide set of brands and that there were a lot of people leaving, and he should come check us out one day if he wanted to get excited about the promise of the company because even though we looked to be a small part of Viacom, we were indeed its future.
HIGGINS: Now this was a hugely risky meeting for you to be doing at this point, right?
FRESTON: Yeah, but I figured I had nothing to lose because I was probably going to leave the company soon thereafter and I figured – I didn’t really know Sumner Redstone, but I figured maybe he’s a good guy. I had nothing to lose. So I met with him and told him to come see us, come visit us.
HIGGINS: So did he come?
FRESTON: He shows up at 9:30 the next morning before any of us even got there. It was like “Sumner Redstone’s in the lobby to see you” and I’m going “Oh God, I can’t go out with him around here.”
HIGGINS: Right, because if Terry Elkes sees that you’ve got the guy who’s trying to buy the company…
FRESTON: So we kind of shuffled him downstairs and took him around MTV, which at the time looked like an overcrowded college dormitory with tapes stacked everywhere and music blaring and all these young kids running around. I thought he’d be horrified in a way to see it, and he came out and said, “This is the most exciting place I’ve ever seen,” and that’s when he really, at least what he tells me, really firmed up his determination to go through with the buyout fight and take over Viacom.
HIGGINS: So your meeting paid off.
FRESTON: Yeah, it worked out fine for me.
HIGGINS: So he took it over. That’s when you got your last promotion, Chairman of MTV Networks.
HIGGINS: At that point, the question was expansion. Pretty much international was your first big expansion, right? You started in the late ’80s internationally and then started new networks in the early ’90s?
FRESTON: Yeah, I mean, first of all when they took us over in ’87 it was a leveraged buyout again, so we were saddled with a lot of debt, so the mantra was “cash was king”, we could only invest a certain amount of money in a certain amount of things so we actually had a deal in Europe that we had a 25% passive interest. In other words, we managed it but didn’t invest any money in it. We would try and launch new businesses in creative ways where we didn’t have to invest money, and we would incrementally go about… I think at that point in time MTV Networks was probably about a hundred million dollar a year business.
HIGGINS: In revenues?
FRESTON: Yeah, and next year it will be like five billion, so it has had a considerable… we were a small business at that point in time, and we incrementally would make steps to invest in animation at Nickelodeon, to buy out our partners in Europe, to start TV Land, to start MTV Latino, all sorts of things. We also became more ambitious in terms of the type of programming we did on all of our networks, moving from that wall-to-wall video format to more originally produced programming.
HIGGINS: Let me ask you a couple of broader questions. So, the music video as a form, has done some really good things for music and then done some not so great things for music. When you look at some of the stuff that’s on today the videos aren’t very creative and in some ways it’s putting the same kind of constraint that the really tight radio programmers were doing. What do you see as the effect of the music video?
FRESTON: I always thought a music video is just another thing that can be great or bad. Look at the sum total of all the songs at the end of the year and most of them are bad and there’s a few great ones. So then music videos can be great or bad and most of them are probably bad, too. So as you mix them together to get the great song with the great music video, which is irresistible, and we all know some of those in our lives that we remember very strongly, is a rare thing. There’s a lot of things that are sort of on the B list and a lot of things that you would say C or D, but I would say that, you know, just when we think music videos are really getting bad and boring, a new school of directors comes along and there’s sort of a new period where creativity is important again. It kind of waxes and wanes, but it doesn’t have the novelty or the intrinsic appeal of the latest, greatest new thing anymore, but it still is a very valid way to promote new music, for artists to image themselves, to artistically express themselves, for experimenting at low costs. Some of the best music videos don’t cost much money. Whenever I hear a music video is going to cost over a half a million dollars I go, “Oy! It’s probably not going to be great.” It’s really when you get someone and say, “You’ve got $30,000 or $50,000 to come up with something,” you get something interesting. But the music video will always be with us. It’s not the thing of the moment, but I don’t see it going away. They’re still making loads of them; they have big worldwide application as well.
HIGGINS: A couple things have stuck out at me about this company over the years. One, is that you have… the executives around you have been here forever. Judy McGrath has been here for 15 or 20 years…
FRESTON: 22 years.
HIGGINS: Herb Scannels has been here, albeit he’s kind of a more recent arrival, but further down in the organization, you have a strong team that’s loyal to you and the company. How do you do that? How do you keep people rising and why do you not bring people in?
FRESTON: Well, I really think in any business your team is really key. Those are the people who really do stuff or direct doing stuff. So I feel that I’ve been very blessed to have a group around me that have worked as long together as we have because it’s like a family, really. Everybody knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses and everybody knows sort of what to expect from each other and you don’t have to second-guess people a lot. These people… I think they’re the greatest creative executives around. It’s very hard to find a good creative executive who actually can work on the right and left side of their brain and I really look at people like Judy or Herb Scannel as people who are symbols in the industry and can attract great people to come work here because my real goal is how to we continue to get the best young people who want to come into this industry come and want to work for this company and keep the reputation good and keep the bar high. We want to hire people who have a passion for the product and they have a real connection to it, and treat them well when they’re here and set up a good culture that’s healthy, that is not too hierarchical or political and they can have fun here. It’s like the most fun they could have at a job and try and compensate them fairly, and people have stayed and I think it’s because they feel they’re free to do a lot of things on their own; their jobs are sort of entrepreneurial as well and I just feel blessed, but I’m amazed how fast all the time has gone by. When I look back and say, “My God, I’ve been here 20 years!” It’s been like that! (snapping)
HIGGINS: You try and keep people focused on their network not on their company – not where the money actually comes from a checking account, but just on their little neck of it. How do you do that?
FRESTON: Well, I think one of the big problems in the media industry today is with all the consolidation we have all these big companies and big companies don’t mean much to people. People who work here, most of them don’t even know Viacom is owned. I think the trick of having a creative entity within the confines of a big company is to have a lot of decentralized small units that feel they control their own destiny. So, I want the people at MTV not to worry so much about what’s going on at Nick At Night or VH1, but just worry about yourself or just some small part there because smaller is better. A big company doesn’t mean generally you’re going to have a better creative product or better ideas. It generally means things are going to move more slowly and be more bureaucratic. So I think by keeping all these different units small and independent, when we add them all up we get better results than trying to manage them in the Stalin model from the top and have everybody move together is just too complicated.
HIGGINS: Now, I know, I think, that your favorite artist is someone who may have never been played on any of your music networks, and that’s Syd Straw. Correct?
FRESTON: Oh, yeah! Syd Straw! She’s one of my favorite artists. Actually we did have a Golden Palominos video way back when that we played in the ’80s and she had a single that had a video but never got played much, no.
HIGGINS: What do you like in music? What are your favorite artists? Judy McGrath says her favorite part of running MTV is she gets to see Neil Young, which is her favorite. What do you like in music?
FRESTON: Well, I have pretty broad taste. I like classical music, I like jazz a lot, I like a lot of rock music, old folk music, I like R&B. It really depends on sort of what I’m in the mood for, what’s the time of day, what I’m doing. I love to go see Neil Young play. I don’t play a lot of that at home. I love to see Bruce Springsteen play; I don’t play a lot of that at home. But I lately have a big interest, in the last bunch of years, in world music – a lot of stuff from West Africa, Brazil, Asia. That’s very exciting to me. I think as I get older my tastes get a bit more obscure and I’m happy I’m not the one doing the programming, but you try and keep a hand in what’s going on these days, like with MTV, VH1, CMT and I think it’s fair to say these days the music industry’s having some issues. We don’t see the kind of artists with the kind of resonance we have had in the past.
HIGGINS: The record companies complain about piracy is killing their sales and to me it’s they’re not putting up anything fresh. I mean, even as fresh as like the teen pop, which I hated, but at least was a movement.
FRESTON: Well, the way they’re organized today as part of these public companies, there’s a lot of pressure on them, which causes them, I think, to do a lot of bad things. I mean, remember, Bob Dylan didn’t even have a hit single until he had five albums out and now he’s become one of the greatest artists of all time. It’s hard to imagine an artist today would ever get to have five albums out without having a hit.
HIGGINS: Particularly rap, which is very singles oriented.
FRESTON: Yeah, and rap’s a whole different thing. It doesn’t have the kind of catalog value you have with a lot of other stuff, but there’s more focus today on the song than on the album. Rock music has sort of gone away. It moves in cycles, but I would posit that one of the reasons that the music industry is doing poorly has to do with the music that’s there. There’s a lot of good music around the fringes but down the middle pop music that attracts a lot of people with a certain amount of passion is not happening. Maybe that’s a sure sign that it’s about to, that something’s going to come along.
HIGGINS: You and I have this conversation about every 3-5 years and then the next thing comes out and we’re both happy again. I’m happy to buy records and you’re happy for the ratings. An interesting thing – I’ve met your son over the years and the one thing that’s always been very interesting to me is you live in a life where there’s a lot of dirt work to do and there’s a lot of celebrities and there’s a lot of Page Six people flash around, you show up on Page Six – how do you raise your kid in that environment and keep him grounded when he’s dancing between the Hilton sisters, which this could be fairly interesting – somebody watching this in ten years, they may be totally over and nobody will have any clue who these Hilton sisters are. So how do you keep your kid grounded raising him in that environment?
FRESTON: Well, I just think you have to try and pour good values into your kids and tell them that a lot of the things that they might see are not necessarily permanent or important, and I always told my sons, I said, “A lot of this stuff – if you ever tell your friends that you ever do some of this stuff they’re just going to resent you because no one wants to hear this, and you should try and establish a certain cool about yourself and a certain level-headedness. Now, my oldest son is off at college and I’m very proud of the way he’s grown up. I just think there’s a certain thing about being humble and not taking the world for granted. He hasn’t really been spoiled in any way. He’s had some exposure to all of that, but on the other hand, I think he knows how fleeting a lot of this stuff is and how sill it is at a very young age. The notion of celebrity to him doesn’t have the resonance that maybe it does to someone who grew up in the Midwest that worships Ben and J.Lo.
HIGGINS: Everybody worships Ben and J.Lo! Maybe nobody will know in ten years who they are either!
FRESTON: Well, they’ll know who J.Lo is.
HIGGINS: What do you see next for MTV? Is MTV still fresh in ten years, or twenty years?
FRESTON: Yeah, if we’re on our game. I really think that it’s got this great position sort of at the edge of the culture, and it’s more likely to be hurt by the actions we take, I think, than forces that might happen to us because we have the ability to adapt and change what we are. It’s a very exciting time in a sense as we really see the move to digital now really happening with wireless, and the Internet, and downloading, and the way people are consuming and thinking about music, and cell phones, and how we move into that era and stay interesting and relevant is a real big challenge – the world of Tivo and the DVRs – it’s going to require lots of changes and lots of changes in processes, not only by ourselves but I think by all the other television networks for the next ten years, a time of real profound change. So I think we can be as great as we are today. It’s amazing in a way to think that 22 years ago MTV went on the air and now it’s having its best year ever in terms of its audience size, for something that is appealing to the fleeting fickle youth market to actually be doing better and still be seen as sort of credible and cool and relevant is a big accomplishment.
HIGGINS: It’s not just the audience size. I mean, you know me, I’ll tell you when I hate your programming, which I do periodically, but MTV specifically has very fresh stuff on. You’re not riding out The Osbournes for three consecutive years, you’ve moved on, Brian Graden has moved you on to a lot of stuff that changes very quickly and is fresh and fun, even though I’m way out of the demo.
FRESTON: Yeah, they’ve really come upon… the programming group at MTV now is so brilliant and they really have fractured the traditional programming models and we are not into seasons or running stuff to 65 episodes. It’s move’em in, move’em out. We’re a network of the moment and we’re going to stay fresher and we have a different… we’re not going to have ten seasons of Friends.
HIGGINS: Well, that also means you’ve got no backend. Jessica Simpson and Newlyweds, the value of that video library of those 20 episodes is going to be what in four years?
FRESTON: Well, one day maybe we can put it all on some digital channel for people to relive their youth, who knows? But the economics of MTV are such that we don’t need a backend because we’re making a lot on our front end on a regular basis. I mean you won’t find many more networks with a higher profit margin. So the front end is good enough for me. Whatever there is on the backend – and by the way, a lot of this stuff is fed to our international network and has a lot of uses – but just the nature of MTV stuff is really of the moment, it by definition has very little value. Maybe one day when VH1 does the Best of the ’00s we’ll have a library of stuff we can bring in and pick from. But you’re right.
HIGGINS: One thing you started seeing in the late ’80s is that music videos wouldn’t hold the rating. They didn’t repeat. What was that all about? Why was there so much growth and then suddenly you realized that the videos weren’t enough?
FRESTON: Well, you know, the novelty of the music video gradually wore off and while people were interested in them they were less interested in them as a phenomenon so we saw our ratings decline. At the same time, we were now part of a company that was very interested in our growth and we were now measured on the Nielson meter, so we needed to grow our ratings and we were looking at the core programming staple…
HIGGINS: When did you get on the Nielson meter?
FRESTON: Oh, probably ’84, ’83 actually. But now we were talking about trying to get appreciable sums of money for advertising so the ratings were important. They weren’t something you said, “Oh, by the way, our rating is…”, you were sort of sold by ratings. So our fundamental programming element seemed to be wearing a little thin and at the same time the creative group at MTV was sort of feeling their oats and eager to try and do other things and saying, “We can reinvent the channel and we should change its face and we need to kind of move into another phase ourselves.” I was the General Manager at the time and we appointed some development groups and that was someone with a handheld camera and we looked at a game show like Remote Control or the Week in Rock where we would take our news programming and put it on a weekly news format – we hired Kurt Loder – and we tried going to spring break and doing things around events and all of this paid off. Anytime we did something new on the channel it seemed to do better than music videos and actually would improve the ratings of the music videos too, so we began to evolve and stretch out creatively and realize that maybe our destiny lay more in that road which was we could have more control of our destiny and not be reliant so much on the waxing and waning of the music industry and the vitality of the music out at any moment.
HIGGINS: Well, and you were also the death of the music video or the problem with the music video was the short attention span, so people who were drawn to it… if some video came on, if Whitney Houston came on and you weren’t a Whitney Houston fan, you picked up the remote control and you changed it like you would change the button on a radio station.
FRESTON: Well, you would have eight music videos… an hour would be like 8-10 different programs, and people now all had remote controls. They didn’t have to get up off the set, so you were basically looking at giving someone an opportunity to change the channel after every three minutes. Now we could live with a certain amount of that and we really did believe we’re music television and we didn’t want to abandon music by any means because we’ve always tried to ride this line where we realized we couldn’t go too far away – we’d sort of lose our roots, lose our heritage, probably lose our way, lose our credibility and clout with these artists because we sort of have an agreement with them. We also developed non-music, or music long-form things like the Unplugged franchises and other types of performance shows. We really got into experimentation with animation – Beavis and Butthead – and we realized we’re a platform to break a certain type of television program and that continues to this day, what with The Osbournes and Newlyweds and so forth.
HIGGINS: I realize that starting MTV2 about six years ago was in part to address this, but now the long-form program, the half hour structured program, has virtually shoved music videos out of the way. It’s not in prime time. It’s in some of afternoon hours and it’s certainly in the fringe hours. At what point did you all sit there and realize that we really need to do a lot more structured programming?
FRESTON: Well, every year Viacom would tell us what our budget goals were and we realized that to grow the network financially we would need to improve the ratings base, that we would need to have something new to talk about to advertisers, that we would need to have something new to talk to the audience about because there were more and more channels sort of competing with us for viewers and traditional program forms could be done… half hour formats could be done in an untraditional way. At the same time we tried to think of other ways we could keep music incorporated onto the network in terms of end credits or longer form music shows or shows about the artists themselves which do very well, and there was the MTV2 thing which would be sort of the wall-to-wall music video lovers network and we just got more and more ambitious. I would say that MTV would not have grown as a force in the culture or as a financial force for Viacom without us having consciously tried to reinvent the channel every few years and experiment with different kinds of programs.
HIGGINS: As a result of primetime now being pretty much non-music shows or non-music video shows, is MTV as important in pop music today as it was five years ago or even ten years ago?
FRESTON: I think so. I think it’s still the big single national place. If you watch it for a day you’ll see lots of the major artists on there. There’s lots of ways that their music is showcased and performed. The market’s changed a lot; in a way you could argue that the internet is the music video of the day for young people. That’s sort of the place where there’s so much music consumed and that MTV’s become a bunch of different things, but we are important to the music industry and we’re conscious of our relationship to them and conscious of the fact that we can’t just abandon music because it brings us a lot of value and that’s why a lot of people who work here are here. So it’s a fine line we try and learn how to tread dealing with financial realities, the realities of the market place where you have to always be talking about something new, and what do you deal with at a time when the music isn’t especially vital. The last time we had a lot of big popular music, you know, back in sort of the boy band phase back in the late ’90s, we were music all the time and then when that sort of dropped off we haven’t really seen a music genre or form really kind of replicate that sort of heat in the culture.
HIGGINS: It’s always terrible for MTV when pop music kind of goes into a big sinkhole and nothing seems to be escaping, or as the period of probably about ’96-’97 where “Uh-oh, there’s nothing on. Let’s see what’s the real deal. Let’s try techno. Let’s try the lyric free dance music.”
FRESTON: You try. You try stuff. It’s like rubbing sticks together. If there’s nothing out there you say maybe we can make this work. Maybe the music’s not popular because it hasn’t been exposed right and you just put it on, but the audience… it’s like pushing a string, the audience doesn’t buy it. We had that in the late ’80s with the hair bands, the Warrants and the Wingers and all that. Music was going down into the sinkhole and we didn’t know what to do but then that whole Seattle thing popped up along with the rise of Dr. Dre and Snoop and that whole California hip-hop scene, and music was back on the front page.
HIGGINS: And I guess the thing that I’ve learned, especially from watching you and your executives angst in certain periods when music wasn’t going well, is that MTV doesn’t lead music as much as people outside this network assume it does. That it’s a very mutual lead/follow with your audience.
FRESTON: Yeah, there’s some things they can lead on. Historically some alternative rock music they can lead on. Sometimes they can lead on some forms of hip-hop, but mostly it comes from other places, that’s true. Part of the early heritage was we led on everything but as we became a bigger and bigger thing, it isn’t so much like playing it safe but you need to play stuff that people are interested in. People generally aren’t interested in new music. People like music they already know, but you want to sprinkle some new music in there so it’s a question of what can you highlight. What’s that balance?
HIGGINS: Now MTV News started out of just… it was a very early, “Oh, what are the music headlines?” How did MTV News evolve from just being kind of the pop Entertainment Tonight for music to something that was more real news and more political and public affairs?
FRESTON: Well, in ’86/’87 when we saw our ratings begin to decline for the first time we really went into an off-site reassessment and we decided that besides adding some long-form shows and experimenting creatively that we could be more than just about the music, we could also be about all the things the music is about in terms of what we might do with our news programming. So it could be about fashion, it could be about movies, it could be about other things in the popular culture, it could be about relationships, it could be about anything, really, young people are interested in because there was no real pure platform for things young people were interested in. Eventually we were able to extend that into things like politics, sexual politics, health issues, various pro-social causes, but still mixing in a certain amount of celebrity news and stuff about the popular culture. We launched shows about fashion, a lot of award winning documentaries and I’m proud that we’ve made those steps. That’s sort of freed us up in a way to be able to evolve and be a bit more free form in terms of where we could take the channel, and it’s funny, if you talk to kids today this is the MTV they know. It isn’t like if you talk to someone who’s 35 years old and they go, “You know, I really miss that MTV that played all the music videos all the time.” To someone today who’s 24, this is the MTV they’ve always known. Obviously they’re watching it more than it was being watched 15 years ago so it seems to be working, but it’s always looking for a balance.
HIGGINS: So when people are complaining about how you don’t play music videos anymore, for your audience today that’s not nearly as big of a deal as it is for somebody who’s my age.
FRESTON: Generally not. They like them, but we have a lot of music videos on our website that people can access and play as they want to see them. We have MTV2 out there. We do fit them in here and there on the channel and there’s still our music video programs on MTV and VH1, but it is true, other stuff does better.
HIGGINS: Now, ’92 was a big year for MTV and news. You all decided to actually cover the campaign, decided that you were going to be a legitimate news organization instead of being some… what people outside the network at the very least considered to be some kind of almost, not quite as parody as The Daily Show, but not a real legitimate news organization, something that was speaking to kids about whatever bands that kids wanted to know and not about serious issues. But in ’92 you all affirmatively decided to change that. How did that decision come about?
FRESTON: Well, the news department said, “You know, we have an interesting election coming up. It’s an interesting time; there’s a recession, the young people are really feeling the brunt of that, they can’t get jobs.” The research was saying young people, which was then sort of Generation X, they didn’t seem themselves living as well as their parents, so there were a lot of factors saying this is going to be interesting. What do young people think about this election? And the talk said… it went from let’s cover it to let’s aggressively cover it and put ourselves in the middle of it and see if we can get politicians to talk to us about the issues that concern young people. Generally they’re talking about social security and Medicaid and foreign trade balances and whatnot, but young people really aren’t interested, they’re interested in education, security, health issues, where do I get a job, and it worked really, really well. We went out early on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and we were the story. Based on the early experiences we set our sights higher to the point where we were even able to get the presidential candidates to come on and speak to our audiences and forums.
HIGGINS: So you were the story at that time. Should you have been the story?
FRESTON: Well, I think there are so many reporters following around the presidential campaign and people are always cognizant of falling off voter levels, particularly among young people, that when MTV showed up it was like “Whoa, this is something new. Young people are actually interested in what’s going on in politics and we’re going to sort of be their pipeline to the candidates.” So I think it was a good thing. In fact, after that election they saw that the voting by people in the 18-24 year old group went up for the first time in 20 years. It actually went up 20%, so it wasn’t just us mind you, but there was the Rock the Vote movement out there, there was the fact that Clinton, in particular, had done an awful lot consciously to appeal to this young audience that was sort of feeling what they felt to be the pain of the Bush I recession. So it all played out very well for us. Our audience was extremely interested in this and this opened up sort of a whole new line of work for us that we could follow in the future.
HIGGINS: So that was 12 years ago. How has MTV News changed? I guess you don’t seem to be doing quite as much of the public affairs today as you were maybe five years ago.
FRESTON: Well, we have big plans coming up for this election year that starts real soon. There’s a bunch of meetings going on about that right now.
HIGGINS: What do you think you’re going to do?
FRESTON: Well, they’ll be covering the primaries, they’ll be embedding reporters with the various candidates and we’re looking at covering debates and the conventions and talking to young people, trying to get forums together, tying in with organizations like Rock the Vote, trying to build up political awareness in a non-partisan way. So there’s big plans to do that. We try and find a cause in these off-election years every year. Last year was all about AIDS and AIDS testing; we had several hundred thousand people, or actually a couple million people go out and get HIV tests on the basis of what has happened as some of the awareness building that we do on MTV. So things like tolerance, gun violence, HIV/AIDS, full-year programs that involve news stories, news coverage, specials, a lot of outreach stuff, tie-ins on college campuses, tie-ins with local organizations – we’re very active in that regard and it’s tens of millions of dollars of media value every year go into that type of stuff and it’s stuff the audience appreciates; it helps build the MTV brand up and it’s good for our business and it’s something that everyone at the network feels good about doing.
HIGGINS: How do you think of brands for TV as opposed to how the broadcast networks or some of the more general networks think about their brands? What is a TV brand? What does that mean to you and what does that mean to your audience?
FRESTON: Well, I think, like the big networks, their brands are their shows. Brand is a real overused beat word. I almost hate to use it these days. It’s been beaten into the ground. It’s hard for there to be an NBC brand…
HIGGINS: Sorry I brought it up.
FRESTON: No, you can bring it up. NBC and CBS and ABC, they are just a collection of unrelated shows. That’s basically what they do. There’s nothing wrong with that; they make a very good business on that. In cable, a lot of cable networks anyway, are collections of related shows. When you have a collection of related shows that have the same editorial point of view, same sensibility, same format, you can craft a brand from that – Discovery, CNN, MTV, that’s easier. It’s very hard to think how USA or TNT or CBS or NBC, which are more general entertainment networks, really do that. So, a brand is a great advantage if you’re a little guy. If you’re a big guy you don’t really need a brand. Your shows sell. I’m always thinking we’re a little guy, how do we get people to even remember our name? There’s 200 channels. I want people to say I want to watch some MTV and refer to MTV first and second before they might even refer to the show that’s on. They know they can go there and they know what to expect when they’re there. When you go to ABC it’s more of an appointment kind of viewing experience, and the more crowded that the media marketplace gets, the more choices there are, the more value a brand has because essentially it’s like a shortcut shorthand for a consumer. You say it and it’s more top of mind, they know what it stands for and it makes your life a little bit easier.
HIGGINS: We haven’t talked much about Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon has been as forceful in its niche as MTV has. I’m not sure culturally, but it certainly has dominated its audience for years and years.
FRESTON: Well, Nickelodeon I would argue is more successful than MTV. It’s not as big a force in the popular culture because its audience are kids and the kids haven’t yet been heard from, but they will graduate and go to MTV and be heard from, but Nickelodeon largely erased the kids business from broadcast television. It gets 50% of all viewing kids due to all television accrues to Nickelodeon. It’s been the number one network on cable for seven years – not the number one kid’s network, but the number one network. It’s an unbelievable powerhouse and it is programmed along the same kinds of philosophical lines as MTV: going for a segmented audience, having a certain style and sensibility about it, but it also is pro-social, non-violent, makes very careful program choices and in the loyalty game tries to establish a good relationship with these kids, particularly kids 6-11 and has had an amazing track record.
HIGGINS: Some of the criticism is Nickelodeon has also stolen it from PBS. That it’s doing things that are very commercial, which I don’t happen to think is a big deal because kids are going to see commercials for their entire lives, but…
FRESTON: Like Blue’s Clues, you mean?
FRESTON: Well, look, we put on a show and it was unknown show. Every show we put on we hope becomes successful. When it becomes a phenomenal level like Blue’s Clues or Sponge Bob, you go man! We’ve really got a run away hit here. I believe that those shows have become as successful as they have because the platform of Nickelodeon is so much stronger than it was ten years ago. The platform means something and Sponge Bob may not have been as big of a hit ten years ago on Nickelodeon as it is now because Nickelodeon itself is stronger, but it was a unique show. They took a chance at it; it was unlike anything else on the dial. It wasn’t like this was a safe choice, a sponge, an inanimate object was going to be this cultural touchstone. So you get something like that, you revel in it. I don’t think it’s bad.
HIGGINS: This was a good time in your life to be taking over Nickelodeon because you started to have kids at that time, correct?
FRESTON: Back in ’87, yeah. So it’s fun because you could watch… I mean, it’s dangerous to think your focus group for your channel is what your kids are watching, but it’s hard as a television executive to sit down and watch a lot of children’s programming if you’re not inherently sort of a children’s television programmer. You can do it more easily when you have a kid who you’re sitting down and watching with. It’s through my children that I got a better appreciation of what was going on at Nickelodeon.
HIGGINS: Right, and then eventually MTV.
HIGGINS: Thank you very much. We appreciate your time. It’s October 28th, 2003 and the question is: “Is it ten years and do you know who the Hilton sisters are?”
FRESTON: It’s doubtful. Okay, thanks.