Faltering VH1 a top priority for MTV prez

Sykes switches channels to CEO of Infinity Radio

This article was corrected on Mar. 17, 2002.

NEW YORK — MTV Networks has engineered a shakeup in the executive ranks, elevating Judy McGrath to president of all of the cable music networks while John Sykes gives up his post as president of VH1 and Country Music TV to become chairman and CEO of sister company Infinity Radio.

Viacom, parent company of MTV and Infinity, denied that depressed ratings for VH1 in the last year or so led to the changes.

In a phone interview, Sykes repeatedly stressed that under his presidency, VH1 “delivered eight straight years of earnings growth.” But in the last year, VH1’s primetime ratings have fallen 40%, and the network’s attempt to carve out a high-visibility niche at 11 p.m. weeknights with the comedy-variety series “Late World With Zach” got off to a poor start earlier this month.

By contrast, MTV has broadened its programming menu more successfully, premiering what looks like a runaway hit in “The Osbournes,” a satire of traditional sitcoms, earlier this month and continuing to chalk up powerhouse Nielsens with the ninth season of “The Real World.”

“VH1 will climb out of its ratings dip,” McGrathsaid . Although she said it’s too early for her to talk about specific changes to VH1’s schedule, McGrath is convinced that putting MTV and VH1 together under one president should benefit both nets in everything from programming exchanges to cross-promotion.

“The audiences for MTV and VH1 are similar enough that cross-promotion could prove a real benefit to each of them,” said Michael J. Wolf, head of the global entertainment and media practice for McKinsey & Co.

Reporting to McGrath will be Van Toffler, president of MTV, MTV2 and MTV Films, and Brian Phillips, general manager of CMT. MTV Networks hasn’t designated a specific point person at VH1 to succeed Sykes, and McGrath said she’ll take charge of VH1 operations for the foreseeable future.

For Sykes, becoming chairman of Infinity Radio is much more than just a consolation prize for the loss of his post at VH1.

As a group, the 183 Infinity radio stations chalked up almost as much annual revenue as the cable networks owned by Viacom. In 2001, the cable nets grossed about $4.3 billion, up 3.4% from 2000. Infinity Radio grossed nearly $3.7 billion in 2001, down 8% from last year. Sykes said that almost 90% of the radio stations owned by Infinity reside in the top 50 markets, making them what he calls “powerful revenue generators,” despite the soft advertising marketplace.

The Infinity job became available when Farid Suleman resigned last month to become a special limited partner at investment bank Forstmann Little.

Sykes said one of his main goals in the new job will be to accelerate the trend of getting Infinity radio stars like Howard Stern and Don Imus to do more television and convincing TV personages like Bill O’Reilly to add radio shows to their schedules.

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