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Chris McCarthy on Reinventing MTV, Moving From ‘Buy to Build Mentality’

As goes MTV, so goes Viacom. For the industry, there is no stronger measure of the health of Viacom than the state of MTV.

Chris McCarthy, a 15-year Viacom veteran, has been leading the effort to revive the brand since October 2016, when he added oversight of MTV to his portfolio that already included VH1 and Logo. His appointment came just as Bob Bakish was elevated to acting CEO of Viacom.

The pressure was on from the moment McCarthy got the job. Bakish figured the entire company had about nine months to show demonstrable growth to Wall Street. MTV was crucial to the rehabilitation of Viacom’s corporate image.

McCarthy’s first order of business was to bring some lightness back to MTV, which had been pursuing edgier scripted programming and grittier topics in its unscripted fare (one project that was in development at the time McCarthy took over was dubbed “Knocked Up and Locked Up”).

The watchword under McCarthy’s regime became “fun.” The other focus was on embracing the importance of youth culture and the coming-of-age experiences of millennials and post-millennials. McCarthy also put a big emphasis on the MTV programming team digging into development of concepts and sought-after talent and relying less on pitches from outside producers.

“The first thing we did was switch our entire mentality from ‘buy to build,’ ” McCarthy said. “I was lucky enought to grow up at MTV when we had some of the best content creators and culture-makers under our roof. We didn’t buy, we built.”

MTV has seen slow but steady ratings improvement for more than a year. New unscripted programs have put the spotlight on breezy and beachy fare, starting with “Siesta Key” and “Floribama Shore.” In April, McCarthy’s mission turned a corner with the strong return of “Jersey Shore Family Vacation.”

McCarthy and his programming team — which also took on oversight of cabler CMT in October — are leading the charge in Viacom’s strategy of mining its library of IP for new content. In October, MTV surprised the industry by unveiling a revival of “The Real World” that will air next year, not on MTV but on Facebook Watch, in an effort to connect the show with a generation of viewers that wasn’t born when the series first became a sensation in 1992. 

McCarthy and his boss share a level of infectious optimism about Viacom and its prospects for moving away from being a company that operates cable channels to a portfolio of brands that have potential in a host of businesses and platforms. McCarthy and Bakish also share similar backgrounds — both were trained as engineers who went on to earn MBAs.

For engineers, McCarthy notes, the focus is always on the elements of a solution rather than the size of the problem. Bakish has led the problem-solving brigade that he assembled with a get-it-done spirit.

“You have to respect the engineer in Bob. He always says ‘Walk me through it, tell me the ‘why’ and then let’s figure out how to do it,” McCarthy said.

Read VarietyBob Bakish cover story here

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