When MTV came on the air in 1981, Tony DiSanto was a 12-year-old in Manhasset, Long Island, diligently memorizing every line of “The Twilight Zone” and cutting his own versions of movies by setting up a tape-to-tape between two Betamaxes.
That fan boy sensibility, which DiSanto admits he has never fully outgrown, makes the MTV exec an unlikely person to run programming at a top-earning cable net.
It also makes him — the execs who upped him to the job in May hope — the person who could bring the injection of fresh thinking MTV has sought for years.
With the title of MTV programming prexy, DiSanto has what may be the most difficult job in television.
MTV over the last several years has suffered ratings drops and also lost cultural buzz without a crossover hit like “Newlyweds.” With the MTV brand still the pearl of Viacom, the net’s fortunes aren’t just an economic concern — they’re essential to the legacies of Philippe Dauman and the post-split Viacom.
To make matters more complicated, DiSanto has to restore the net’s luster at the exact moment its fickle audience has mutated, turning to alternative media like YouTube and MySpace.
“It’s definitely a tough job,” DiSanto says when asked about the forces arrayed against him. “But if you look at the history of MTV, one constant is reinvention.”
Indeed, DiSanto may steer MTV further away from its current offerings more than any major cable net has done since, well, MTV remade itself from a music net into one powered by unscripted fare.
A few months into the job, he is already prepping a scripted drama (the teen-rock-star series “Kaya”) as well as horror project (“Darius,” about the secret life of a teenager) and an animated skein from Tom Stern of “Crank Yankers” fame.
“When I used to do scripts I found I did better with a blank page,” he says. “I don’t want to repeat stuff that’s already on the air.”
DiSanto’s life is marked by a love of obscure martial-arts movies but also by an obsession with crowd-pleasers like the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys”; he’s seen it more than 30 times.
If MTV is to re-capture its golden era, DiSanto thinks, it must embrace a similar paradox.
Speaking from his Times Square office, where autographed “Laguna Beach” and “Run’s House” lithographs sit next to “Return of the Jedi” posters and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” lunchboxes, he says MTV must skew younger while appealing to both genders. At the same time, it needs to come up with a broad hit that will get people talking at the watercooler or student cafeteria.
Producers who work with DiSanto say he has been pushing them to pitch shows that are either decidedly “agro” — aggressive male-oriented shows like “Jackass” — or those with solid appeal to teenage girls. DiSanto has doubled the size of the next season of “The Hills” and changed his mind in favor of a new season of the “Laguna Beach” franchise. And his first renewal was sketch comedy show “Human Giant,” which draws relatively few viewers but has a cult following.
But even as he takes the niche approach, DiSanto is reaching for a big hit with two new shows: the reality series “The Life of Ryan,” about the family and professional travails of a champion teenage skateboarder, and “Kaya,” a scripted series about a teenage rock star.
Brian Graden, who as prexy of the MTVN Music Group promoted DiSanto and is now his boss, calls DiSanto “that rare executive who knows how to swing for the fences with something commercial and gravitate toward something weirder.”
It won’t be DiSanto’s only juggling act.
At MTV, where some producers have historically complained about prickliness and inaccessibility, DiSanto will need to pull off a few other tricks.
When the net was flying high, producers clamored to work with it. But as the net has gone through a ratings lull, it’s given some creators a chance to rethink their relationships.
“They haven’t always been the easiest place to do business with,” says one producer who has sold shows to the net. “Tony’s saying a lot of the right things. The question is can he change the culture of the place?”
How DiSanto came to this job is a story as riddled with twists as a vintage episode of “The Real World.”
He didn’t intend to run the cable net with the fifth-highest annual revenue. In fact, when he was in the truck as a producer for live shows in the mid-’90s, he was content to be away from the rigors of office life.
Yet through a mixture of chops and luck, DiSanto slowly moved up. After years toiling as a producer, he came on board as a staffer and exec producer, eventually working his way up to the head of east coast development and all programming at MTV2, the flagship’s quirky sister net.
Along the way, he shrewdly tapped into his inner child to devise the aspirational-reality show “Made” and that standard-bearer of ’90s teenybopper culture, “Total Request Live.”
The biggest surprise, however, was yet to come.
This past April, just two months after Graden had promoted Lois Curren to run programming, her responsibilities were abruptly scaled back.
Graden then promoted DiSanto from his role as exec VP of programming below Curren, to run the network.
While MTV is famous for its overlapping execs with redundant responsibilities, DiSanto quickly decided to scrap the system. About a half-dozen people were shown the door — including longtime exec Rod Aissa — and three departments were created to oversee development, production and the business of programming.
And he wants to change MTV’s fiendish development pace. In its bid to replicate success, DiSanto admits, the net contemplated too many similar series. He says he will cut the number of series on the air by as much as 20%-30% (though upping episode orders so that programming hours stay roughly the same).
MTV is also known for its development logjam, and DiSanto wants to strip months out of the process; one of his most oft-used phrases is that he wants to “microwave” development.
Will the net’s creative partners accept this change graciously? “He’s really in the Tom Freston and Bob Iger mold,” says producer Tony Krantz, who is behind “Kaya.” “When he says no, you kind of don’t mind it because he says it with grace.”
But ironically, this popularity may lead to the toughest challenge for DiSanto: making the hard choices that come with any net in transition while maintaining the reputation that has made him trusted in the first place.
Perhaps the most significant question facing DiSanto will be whether all these changes will resonate with consumers. It may be that shows like “Maui Fever” aren’t underachievers, but simply about what the net can hope to generate from its smaller core base of viewers.
Can a net, then, change the habits of a generation of Americans?
DiSanto says he doesn’t see the challenge in such grand terms.
“For me, it’s just about creating things that people want to see,” he says. “We don’t need to worry about influencing a generation.”
Then again, as a 12-year-old in Manhasset could tell you, it kind of has always been about that.