MTV Int’l plotting second act

Network looks to reinvent itself

LONDON — In the fickle, fashioned-obsessed music business, 20 months can represent a lifetime.

So how is it that MTV Networks Intl., the overseas arm of the Viacom-owned cable operation, has managed to chalk up 20 years in business — and is still eyeing growth opportunities?

“Don’t rest on your laurels,” says company topper Bill Roedy, who signed up with MTV back in 1989 when channels, rather than multimedia platforms, prevailed. “You’ve got to reinvent yourself constantly.”

As MTVNI celebrates its 20th anniversary, Roedy and his colleagues need no reminder of the digital firestorm that this year led to big changes at the London outpost of Viacom’s TV biz that includes the brands Nickelodeon and Comedy Central as well as a growing new-media portfolio like user-generated offering MTV Flux.

The upshot was that, following months of speculation, Viacom tightened its grip on the London-based international operation.

Company veteran Bob Bakish was appointed prexy of MTVNI in January. In charge of strategy and business development, one of Bakish’s first tasks was to restructure MTVNI, cutting roughly 250 jobs in the process.

This amounted to 8% of MTVNI’s workforce of 3,257 as some of the overseas outfits were merged with the U.K. business, and responsibilities for Latin America were devolved to new offices across the region, a process that is still unfolding.

As the restructuring took effect, several high-profile exits occurred, including those of Michiel Bakker, a 20-year MTV player.

“You can never completely predict the future, but I am 100% comfortable with our HQ operating footprint today,” says New York-based Bakish, who reports to Roedy.

Despite the upheavals, both Bakish and Roedy, whose name is synonymous with MTV’s global Staying Alive HIV and AIDS campaign, are upbeat about the future.

“It’s the best six months we’ve ever had,” Bakish says. “Our revenues are more than $1 billion. We are on course for a 10%-15% increase in margins and operating from a position of real strength.”

Adds Roedy: “In many ways I think we are still at the beginning.”

This sounds a mite optimistic, especially when put in context. Roedy’s empire embraces 135 channels reaching a potential global audience of 1.5 billion.

Post restructure, MTVNI’s modus operandi for the age of YouTube, MySpace and other, as yet unforeseen challenges, involves concentrating on achieving growth in mature markets like the U.K., Germany and Japan, and building the business in new and emerging arenas, principally Asia and the Middle East.

In the U.K., where MTV operates nine music stations and claims a 46% share of music channel audiences, plans are under way for a new general entertainment channel.

At the other end of the market, MTV Arabia, a fully localized free-to air service, is due to bow Nov. 15.

Roedy, who has helped MTV establish a foothold in China, doesn’t rule out one day launching the music station in Afghanistan, which he visited earlier this year.

“We are here to reflect and bring out the local culture,” he insists. “MTV India taps the second-largest Muslim population in the world.”

What are Roedy’s predictions for the company over the next two decades?

“Digital enables us to go further and make deeper connections with our audience and create even more choice,” he says.

“The biggest challenge is complexity. Whether you are a consumer, advertiser or even a distributor, the world is getting more complex,” Bakish says.

“The good news is that by arraying ourselves as a true multinational, multiplatform operator we are able to manage that complexity.”