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Can These Execs Save ViacomCBS’ Storied Cable Brands?

Photographs by Brad Trent

Fresh out of the Wharton School, Chris McCarthy’s path to becoming a television executive began on the white sand beaches of Panama City Beach, Fla.

It was spring break 2005. The executive who now leads the second-largest unit of ViacomCBS by revenue was tasked with hawking MTVU-branded credit cards to college students in various stages of inebriation and undress. He would eventually get his foot in the door at MTV thanks to his success at convincing undergrads to sign up for a card that gave them reward points for good grades, paying the bill on time and purchasing books.

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Brad Trent for Variety

In the moment, sweating it out at a folding table inside a sponsor activation tent on the Florida Panhandle coast, McCarthy worried that he was already wasting his hard-earned MBA.

“It was wild down there — and not my scene,” says McCarthy, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Philadelphia. “It was the funniest thing because I don’t really like credit cards,” he recalls. “But I figured that I had to figure out how to make this thing work. It was my way in.”

McCarthy, 45, president of ViacomCBS’ MTV Entertainment Studios unit (previously known as Entertainment & Youth Group), landed the freelance assignment to help market the MTVU credit card because nobody else at MTV wanted it. He moved enough plastic that week to eventually become head of marketing for MTVU, which at one time beamed a dedicated channel into more than 750 colleges around the country.

Once he passed the MTVU test, McCar­thy held virtually every job there was at 1515 Broadway before landing his first midlevel executive posting — as general manager of MTV2 — in 2010.

“I kept doing the jobs that nobody wanted,” he explains.

Indeed, McCarthy developed a reputation for taking on the work that required the heaviest lifting, and today he’s still doing that, albeit from a loftier perch. McCarthy and Nina L. Diaz, president of content and chief creative officer, have among the toughest assignments in media as they seek to reinvent a clutch of ViacomCBS channel brands that once defined cable television but have struggled amid the sea changes in media consumption during the past decade. McCarthy’s unit encompasses MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, TV Land, CMT, Pop TV, Logo and Smithsonian Channel.

McCarthy’s star at ViacomCBS has soared in the three years since Bob Bakish took the reins of Viacom in late 2016 after a long period of corporate turmoil. Amid this fast rise, McCarthy has plotted a course that fundamentally shifts the prime focus of the company away from running a suite of linear cable channels to using the division as a giant studio that generates programming for the linear channels and a host of other platforms inside and outside ViacomCBS.

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Paramount Network’s Western drama “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner (center), is the net’s highest-rated series. Courtesy of Paramount Network

“The thing we always learned was that MTV had to blow itself up every seven to 10 years for a new generation. You thrive in change or you die in change,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy was handed the largest channel portfolio in the company after the second round of the Viacom and CBS merger was completed between media conglomerates controlled by Shari Redstone, who is non-executive chair of ViacomCBS.

Among his first moves after inheriting oversight of Comedy Central was to establish a relationship with “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah. The two were getting to know each other just as the pandemic lockdown began in March, which provided a good foundation for McCarthy and Noah to work out a bold plan for Noah to host a quarantine edition of “Daily Show” from his home — a move that other hosts soon followed.

Noah, who has been through several management regimes since he took the reins of “The Daily Show” in September 2015, appreciates the “openness” that McCarthy showed to his idea to go back on the air on his own schedule.

“What was really great was hearing from the network side: ‘If you want to give us five minutes, we’ll take five minutes. Or 10 minutes or whatever.’ It’s been nice to be able to put the pieces together that way,” he says. He also credits McCarthy with a keen understanding of why “Daily Show” clips need to be spread liberally around the internet even before the show airs in its nightly slot. Noah is eager to see ViacomCBS’ cable side get more aggressive in the streaming arena. Of McCarthy and Diaz, Noah adds: “I’ve enjoyed working with people who are decisive and visionary as to what they see for the network.”

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Like McCarthy, Diaz grew up in the MTV Networks ecosystem at the height of the cable group’s profitability and cultural influence. The two are driven to restore the luster of the brands that helped point them both in the direction of careers in entertainment. Today, Diaz is among the highest-ranking Latina executives in entertainment. Since she and McCarthy began working together on VH1 in 2015, the two have been in sync on how ViacomCBS needs to shift its programming strategy.

“Having our content on other platforms outside of our group, we will really be able to bring out the kind of things that MTV was known for — telling the stories of young adult life that resonated with all of us, whether you were a teen or a grown-up,” she says.

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“Jersey Shore Family Vacation” will return to MTV next season, but perhaps without Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi (bottom left), who has announced her retirement from the show. Courtesy of MTV

But the obstacles the two face are manifest. The ad-supported basic cable channel business these days is a melting ice cube, something that is inevitably going to shrink as ratings dwindle, advertising dollars go elsewhere and cord cutting takes a steady toll on affiliate fees that flow to ViacomCBS’ bottom line.

Although no one at ViacomCBS is ready to say it publicly, the number of channels in the company’s portfolio will inevitably shrink in the coming years. McCarthy’s studio-focused strategy aims to position the division as an important program supplier that can deliver hits to ViacomCBS’ many in-house platforms, as well as generate advertising and content licensing windfalls from third-party sales.

The new approach was evident earlier this year when McCarthy’s group opted to sell Darren Star’s dramedy series “Emily in Paris” to Netflix rather than have it air on ViacomCBS’ Paramount Network as planned. McCarthy recognized that the show would perform much better in a binge-watch streaming environment than it would as a weekly series on linear TV. “Emily in Paris” has ranked as one of Netflix’s most watched series since its Oct. 2 premiere.

For sure, figuring out the right formula for scripted programming for the linear cable networks is one of the big challengers McCarthy has to tackle with his expanded channel portfolio. Paramount Network, which has enjoyed a sleeper hit with Kevin Costner-starrer “Yellowstone,” has set a new course that will emphasize original telepics with a focus on providing opportunities for emerging directors. Comedy Central, meanwhile, is significantly upping its investment in animated series in the hopes of finding a next-generation “South Park.”

McCarthy and Diaz are also navigating major changes at a time of heightened focus on social justice and anti-harassment concerns as well as industry demands for diversity and inclusivity at all levels. The executives have strained some relationships in the unscripted production community as they moved forcefully on a $250 million initiative to seed a new generation of independent production companies owned by BIPOC producers and showrunners.

“They’re building their own road map through this,” says Judy McGrath, the longtime MTV Networks chief who exited Viacom in 2011. “If the road looks murky now, Chris and Nina are committed to making it clearer. If there’s a shot to make this a growing, enduring business, they’re probably as good as it gets to get them there.”

McCarthy first gained prominence on the TV industry executive radar when he was tapped to take over VH1 in 2015 amid one of Viacom’s innumerable executive shake-ups. His track record in turning around the ratings and financial performance of the channel prompted Bakish to have him take on MTV as well in late 2016. Bakish had faith in McCarthy’s vision for the fading asset in part because they held the same conviction that MTV’s foray into live-action scripted series had been a mistake — and a costly one.

“Chris is rather unusual in that he is both a business executive and a creative executive,” Bakish says of McCarthy. “He’s very analytical, and at the same time he understands the creative process.”

Friends and colleagues say McCarthy is extremely studious about the ViacomCBS universe and the sweeping changes affected the industry at large. By his own admission, McCarthy often spends his downtime “thinking about what I do, partly because I love it so much.”

On Wall Street and among ViacomCBS’ industry peers, there is skepticism that ViacomCBS can navigate the streaming wars as a content supplier to in-house platforms as well as outside partners. McCarthy’s content-focused strategy for his universe of channels is seen as a long shot even among those who are rooting for the company. The only certainty is that sticking with the status quo is not an option.

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Reality shows like “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party” (2016-19) with Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart were shepherded by Nina L. Diaz. Courtesy of VH1

“There are a lot of people who will tell you all the reasons why something can’t happen,” Bakish says. “Chris doesn’t do that. He’s a problem-solver. He comes in and says, ‘Here’s how we’re going to grow.’”

As with all traditional TV networks, the uphill climb of reinvention has only gotten steeper in the environment of a global pandemic and the heightened entertainment industry focus on advancing social justice and combating workplace harassment.

For instance, the goal of McCarthy and Diaz’s BIPOC-producer initiative is admirable, but the process of getting there has been bumpy. Many in the close-knit world of unscripted TV producers are dismayed by the decision to take a number of MTV and VH1 shows away from long-standing production entities.

ViacomCBS also cut ties in June with production banner Big Fish Entertainment amid the controversy over the company’s handling of a sensitive legal issue involving crime-scene footage collected during the production of Big Fish’s now-canceled A&E Network series “Live PD.” Amid the social unrest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, ViacomCBS decided it could no longer be in business with Big Fish. That spurred it to hastily find new producers for Big Fish-produced VH1 series such as “Black Ink Crew,” “Cartel Crew” and the Miami, New York and Atlanta editions of “Love & Hip Hop.”

Diaz makes no apologies for the recent moves concerning shows. She sees it as an effort to keep long-running franchises fresh in addition to contributing to diversity and inclusion goals. She also notes that she feels an obligation to help nurture the BIPOC role models that were lacking when she was working her way up the ranks.

“I really feel like I want to represent for people coming into the industry that anything is possible,” she says.

McCarthy asserts that the effort by ViacomCBS to add BIPOC production companies is a natural progression for the firm that has been a trailblazer in shining TV lights on underrepresented communities.

“We think of it as three phases. Making sure we had diversity on-screen was the first wave, and getting the right people behind the camera was the second wave. The third is ownership of their companies,” McCarthy says.

NPact, the advocacy organization that represents dozens of independent unscripted production companies, has long sought to protect producers from being forced out of shows that they produce on commission for networks that own the underlying copyright.

“Across the entire NPact membership, not locking production companies to the content they create is the No. 1 deal-making issue for producers, even beyond shrinking budgets and fees,” NPact said in a statement issued to Variety. “Production companies front entire full-time development teams that serve as the networks’ creative incubators. That overhead traditionally was supported by a business model through which producers could recoup their upfront costs in success — the longer term that success, the better.”

Some producers with long tenures at ViacomCBS channels say the working environment under McCarthy and Diaz has been difficult amid budget tightening and efforts to revamp or reboot long-running franchises such as VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop.”

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McCarthy opted to sell in-house series “Emily in Paris,” starring Lily Collins, to Netflix, where it has been a hit. Courtesy of Netflix

Mona Scott-Young, an executive producer of “Love & Hip Hop,” says she admires McCarthy for his tenacity and his abilities as a strategic thinker. “It cannot possibly be an easy task to reimagine a network and be forward-thinking about transitioning into being a studio,” she says. But there have been strains in the relationship around the production decisions.

“Sometimes in the pursuit of that growth there are casualties,” Scott-Young says. “I hope they see the value of the partnership that has been long-standing and that this can aid in the success of what they’re trying to build.”

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McCarthy and Diaz are well-equipped to reengineer the MTV universe because they were both schooled in the best of its culture at the end of its previous heyday two decades ago.

Diaz, a New York native who grew up in Washington Heights and Harlem, fondly remembers the heady atmosphere she entered at Viacom’s Times Square headquarters in 1995. She was a few years out of Fordham University when she arrived along with producer Cathe Neukum CQ to work on a documentary project about people with HIV. She’d worked as an assistant and in low-level production jobs on a handful of projects but had never encountered a workplace pulsating with creativity and a spirit of derring-do.

“The halls were full of energy,” Diaz recalls. “It was like being in a college dorm. There was music blasting; there were posters all over the walls. It was two tons of fun.”

Diaz and McCarthy both came into the company through the “permalance” phase of working steadily for Viacom channels even as they had to periodically hustle up new freelance assignments. Both ascribed to the ethos of saying yes to any offer, because the goal was to keep working until a precious staff position opened up.

“You pretty much lived there 24/7,” Diaz says. “It was always a hustle to make sure that you stayed in that loop of getting work, and that was all very dependent on how much you rose to the challenges and how willing you were to take on any task. And everything was thrown at you. You’d walk in one day, and your boss would say, ‘Now you’re going to shoot your story.’ And I’d never picked up a camera. And the next day it was ‘Now you’re going to learn Avid.’”

Diaz eventually became a programming executive who was instrumental in the launch of MTV franchises “Cribs” and “My Super Sweet 16.” She also helped birth the genre-defining hit “The Osbournes” after spotting the potential of Sharon and Ozzy’s clan during a segment of “Cribs.” She left the fold in 2007 to become a full-time producer, delivering the hit “Mob Wives” to VH1 and producing Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey” before returning to VH1 in 2014 as a senior VP of development and production.

Those who know Diaz well say it was clear from the start that she was determined to go far in entertainment. Among her earliest jobs was working as an assistant to Steven Weinstock, the veteran unscripted producer, when he was generating news magazine series “The Eleventh Hour” for New York’s PBS affiliate WNET-TV. Her drive and her creative instincts were so evident during the job interview that he almost didn’t hire her.

“You always have that hope that an assistant will stay a year or two because it takes so long to train them,” says Weinstock, who is now co-head of Endemol Shine’s Truly Original production banner. “I quickly realized that I would be lucky if Nina stayed six months. She was smart, no-nonsense and determined. She had a look in her that said that this job was just a stop on the road to wherever destiny was taking her.”

McCarthy has a special affection for MTV because it offered “a gay kid in Philadelphia” his first glimpse of what it could mean to be out and proud. It was a revelation. “I was glued to it,” he says. “It was a window into a world that I wanted to know.”

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ViacomCBS CEO Bakish has no doubt that the conglom’s flagship global brands have growth years ahead of them. And he has every confidence in McCarthy and Diaz as key drivers of the company’s transformation as it bets on free ad-supported streaming through its Pluto TV service and the enhanced Paramount Plus subscription service set to debut early next year.

“It’s a different growth model than it was 20 years ago or even five years ago,” Bakish says. “The trick is to use all of our content assets to supply all those platforms with compelling new offerings and library franchises that people know. Nina and Chris are going to be programming a lot of platforms.”

For the foreseeable future, the challenges ahead will include keeping productions up and running around the world in the face of the COVID-19 threat. McCarthy credits Diaz and her team with turning on a dime last spring to build out “COVID compounds” in safe zones such as Iceland and Croatia to keep shows running. At any given time, McCarthy’s group has more than 65 series in active production.

“It’s been wildly impressive what our teams have been able to accomplish in such a short time,” Diaz observes. McCarthy adds, “Sometimes you have to run into change or it will run you over.”

The “table stakes” for traditional media amid the streaming transition are extremely high, McCarthy notes. Like Bakish, he is reassured by the fact that the company has a clear vision of where it needs to go. The ability to see the goal is half the battle, as McCarthy realized some 15 years ago in the MTVU credit card activation tent.

Much has changed for the executive since he spent that week in Panama City Beach in 2005. But some aspects of his life, his work and his wallet have remained consistent.

“I still don’t have any credit cards,” McCarthy says.


McCarthy: Styling: Jason Rembert; Grooming: Mariko Arai/The Wall Group; Diaz: Styling: Sandra Amador/Forward Artists; Makeup: Romy Soleimani for Bobbi Brown; Hair: Michael Silva using Kerastase; Lead image McCarthy: Coat: Givenchy; Turtleneck: Club Monaco; Jeans: Rag And Bone; Boots: Giuseppe Zanotti; Lead image Diaz: Suit: Alexander McQueen; Shoes: Giuseppe Zanotti; Earrings: Laura Lombardi and Jennifer Fischer; Cover McCarthy: Coat: Amiri; Turtleneck: Club Monaco; Jeans: Rag And Bone; Boots: Giuseppe Zanotti; Cover Diaz: Coat: Alexander Wang; Dress: Norma Kamali ; Shoes: Gianvitto Rossi; Earrings: Charlotte Chesnais