After Resuscitating VH1, Chris McCarthy Is Ready to Breathe New Life Into MTV

The network chief is betting big on live and unscripted shows

Chris Loupos; MTV Live: Getty Images

When he first started working at Viacom in 2004, Chris McCarthy harbored what he considered a shameful secret: his educational background. Then a freelance director of marketing for mtvU, MTV’s online network for college students, he kept quiet about the fact that he had received his MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, after studying commerce and engineering at Drexel University.

“I was maybe the fifth MBA to get a job here, and I purposely did not talk about it, because at the time, it was so not a cool thing to do,” says McCarthy. But actions speak louder than words, and his hush-hush, unconventional background for a TV exec soon became his secret weapon: “I always took the projects that nobody wanted. In my mind, every problem is fixable. It’s just how you get there, and do you believe you can actually solve it?”

Over the past 13 years, McCarthy’s methodical, Moneyball-like approach to rejuvenating Viacom’s networks has proven that he is peerless when it comes to fixing seemingly unsalvageable problems. First there was MTV2, where he became gm in 2009, followed by Logo, which he took over in 2013. That led to VH1 in July 2015, where he was named gm, and promoted to president of VH1 and Logo less than a year later. Finally, last October, McCarthy was given his most grandiose challenge yet: he was named president of MTV as well, becoming the third network chief in 13 months tasked with trying to revive the iconic, adrift brand, which had been hemorrhaging viewers for years.

When MTV launched in 1981, it would become the defining network for several generations (see timeline). But since Jersey Shore ended in 2012, the brand has lost its way, leading many to wonder if it could ever be relevant again. Not McCarthy. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “It is the youth culture brand, and the opportunity to reinvent it is like no other.”

If anyone knows how to breathe new life into a dormant Viacom music brand, it’s McCarthy—based on his track record. In three years, he took MTV2 from 21st to fifth in the male 12-24 demo, while under his watch Logo saw 10 consecutive quarters of year-over-year growth in adults 18-49. More recently, he led VH1 to seven consecutive quarters of year-over-year total day growth in the channel’s key adults 18-49 demo; last year was the network’s highest rated since 2010.

Now Viacom, which is back on its feet again after a tumultuous 2016, is looking to McCarthy to save one of its most prized assets. In the past five years, the audience in MTV’s 18-34 demo has fallen almost 50 percent, according to Nielsen, while MTV’s estimated ad revenue plummeted 24 percent—to $619.8 million in 2016 from $817.5 million in 2012—according to SNL Kagan.

But the brand’s dog days are finally over, believes Robert Bakish, who was named president and CEO of Viacom last December, and praises McCarthy’s “progression of success. He knows how to build a loyal audience, and he’s very analytical.”

After getting the MTV job last fall, McCarthy quickly formulated his vision for the network: bring back the teens and women who had fled by shifting the focus from scripted shows back to unscripted, coming-of-age themed series, and most importantly, reestablish the brand’s live bona fides.

His new shows don’t start airing until next month, but McCarthy’s early scheduling moves and content tweaks are already yielding dividends: 18-34 demo ratings jumped 10 percent from February to March, and in the first quarter of 2017, MTV was a top 5 cable entertainment network in the demo.

Yet again, McCarthy’s once-secret business and engineering background appears to be paying off. “He has this unique ability to use his left and right brain at exactly the same time, and see things many of us don’t. He can look at something in front of him—whether it’s creative or an immense amount of data—and within seconds, know how to break that down,” says Amy Doyle, gm for MTV, VH1 and Logo. “Usually you’re great at one thing or the other, and he is somehow masterful at both.”

Throughout his Viacom career, McCarthy has applied that skill to revive the company’s networks, one by one. At MTV2, “we didn’t have a lot of resources or staff, and I had to figure out what the audience wanted,” he recalls. “At the time, everybody thought males were leaving TV and nobody wanted to program toward them. And we did the reverse.”

He makes fixes on the fly, which is “a little bit like driving while changing the wheels. But that allows us to evolve every day. There’s no playbook to any of this. It’s constantly being curious, and seeing how the audience responds,” McCarthy says.

As part of that approach, he experimented at the start of the year with programming reruns of Friends on MTV from 6-8 p.m. each night, which immediately spiked ratings among teens and younger viewers. A similar hunch inspired him to transform MTV’s comedy clip show, Ridiculousness, into a live, two-hour block on Fridays in January, just a week after he first pitched the idea to host and executive producer Rob Dyrdek. The move doubled the show’s teen audience, while its 18-34 ratings jumped 50 percent.

Ridiculousness’ ratings bump gave McCarthy the confidence to move forward with his most ambitious plan to reshape the network: making live programming the centerpiece of MTV, restoring the brand to its TRL (Total Request Live) heyday. “That ability to be live, in culture—not responding to it but driving it—is where we belong,” he argues.

So he’s launching a daily live show—tentatively titled MTV Live and scheduled to debut on June 12—which will feature a mixture of music and other elements, and be broadcast out of the network’s iconic Times Square studio. McCarthy has doubled the studio’s size, creating a “versatile” space which can be partitioned for a scaled-down digital or social broadcast in between larger linear shows. Ultimately, he plans to broadcast three or four hours live from the studio each day.

Next month, McCarthy is revitalizing the MTV Movie Awards, adding categories for television, which is such a massive part of its audience’s content diet, and renaming it the MTV Movie & TV Awards. “Every piece is an opportunity to reinvent,” says McCarthy, who removed the gender delineations from categories, and tweaked others (the Best Fight category is now Best Fight Against the System). He’s also building out an onsite festival experience the day of the May 7 ceremony, which could become a weeklong event next year.

The ad side of the business expects a positive marketplace response to the move to live content. “MTV had owned that space, and is now going to reclaim it again,” says Sean Moran, head of sales, Viacom. “We’ve had tremendous interest from the studios and numerous category groups who would love to get involved in that.”

During Viacom’s upfront dinners with agencies, which kick off this week, McCarthy will be sharing elements of his first MTV slate, with roughly a dozen new shows, including the live programs, set to debut this summer. Among them will be revivals of former MTV hits My Super Sweet 16 (returning in mid-May) and game show Parental Control (coming in July), as well as the NBC reality competition Fear Factor (set for May 30). There’s also Siesta Key (an unscripted series, launching July 19, in the vein of The Hills about a group of kids in an elite Florida enclave who return home for the summer after spending their freshman year in college) and Promposal (which showcases the trend of high schoolers going to elaborate lengths to ask one another to the prom, scheduled to begin in mid-May). “That’s the thing we’ve been great at: taking those nascent passion points and exploding them,” McCarthy says.

At VH1, new hits Hip Hop Squares evolved from his audience’s untapped love for game shows, while Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party came out of his interest in developing a “culture clash” food series. Both series also illustrate a key element of McCarthy’s approach to developing programming: the best solutions are created internally. “We’re not waiting for someone to come in and pitch it to us,” he says. “Part of it is the engineer in me. You’ve got to get your hands dirty, and build it yourself.”

McCarthy has revived several Viacom brands. Now it's MTV's turn.

Under the old approach, he notes, VH1 would launch as many as 20 new series a year, “and we’d be lucky if one or two would stick.” But in his two years running the network, he’s gone six for six, with hits like scripted series The Breaks and the return of America’s Next Top Model. He’ll put that streak on the line with VH1’s new upfront slate, which includes the soapy Daytime Divas (based on former View host Star Jones’ novel, Satan’s Sisters, about a daytime talk show) and ’90s House (super-connected millennials recreate ’90s culture in a home without any modern amenities like Wi-Fi or smartphones).

McCarthy’s near-instant success in turning around VH1 over the past two years came as his MTV predecessor, Sean Atkins (who replaced longtime head Stephen Friedman in September 2015), was failing to gain traction with his own revamp. So last October, McCarthy was tapped by Doug Herzog—then-president of Viacom’s Music and Entertainment Group, who departed in December—to work his magic again, this time at MTV. Bakish didn’t take over as interim CEO until a month later, and was named permanent CEO in December, but says he was looped in on the move and “wholeheartedly endorsed” it.

That’s because other than McCarthy himself, no one else at Viacom has a better grasp of how MTV lost its way than Bakish does. Five years ago, as the exec was running Viacom International Media Networks, he watched with dismay as the U.S. brand shifted into scripted programming, even though the company’s research indicated that “nobody” wanted that from MTV. Bakish, who knew it was the “wrong approach,” took a different course on the international side, leaning instead into reality and music programming. His hunch was right: MTV’s international networks have seen consistent share growth over the past five years, while scripted misfires like Eye Candy, Finding Carter and Underemployed drove teens and females away from MTV domestically. Given the brand’s global expansion, “this whole notion that MTV is not relevant anymore is categorically wrong,” says Bakish.

In February, the CEO reiterated his support for MTV by including it among his lineup of six Viacom “flagship networks”—those with global revenue potential in linear TV, digital, off-channel and theatrical—in his new strategy for Viacom. (While McCarthy’s VH1 didn’t make the flagship cut, Bakish emphasizes that “it is a tremendously important Viacom brand. It just doesn’t fit the flagship definition.”)

Buyers agree with Bakish’s optimistic view of MTV, and are eager to see McCarthy engineer yet another network turnaround. “He did a great job with VH1, understanding who the audience is and bringing to them what they were looking for. I truly believe he will have success with MTV,” says Carrie Drinkwater, svp, group director of investment activation, Mediahub, who is most excited about his plans on the music side. “I don’t think anyone has done a great job of marrying millennials and music on TV. To have that consistent go-to for that generation would be fantastic.”

In his first months at MTV, McCarthy—who spends three days a week at his MTV office in Viacom’s Times Square headquarters, and two days in his VH1/Logo office across the street—has worked with the staff to impart his new vision for the network. “He talks about how, because we’re a living, breathing brand unlike any other, we need to build ourselves up, and then be ready to break ourselves apart and get ready for the next generation,” says Jacqueline Parkes, evp, marketing and creative for MTV, VH1 and Logo. At the same time, McCarthy overhauled MTV’s leadership “to fundamentally change the creative process,” he says, installing five new execs, all of whom he brought over from VH1.

While unscripted programming is key to connecting with MTV’s core viewers—a generation that lives their entire lives on social media for all to see—McCarthy says he isn’t completely abandoning the scripted genre. “Scripted is still going to be important, but it needs to be uniquely us,” like Teen Wolf and Awkward, says McCarthy. “If you can see it anywhere else, we shouldn’t be doing it.” And MTV News, which was fortified under Atkins, remains “incredibly important” and will be a regular component of MTV Live.

Despite all that McCarthy has accomplished in just a few months at MTV, he’s worried at times whether he is up to such a Herculean task. Around Christmas last year, “I woke up, thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, what did I sign up for?’” he recalls. But after taking a walk to clear his head, he realized he was grappling with the very same panic that seized him a few months into running MTV2, and later VH1. “There’s a moment where there’s a cloud, and you have to push through that. We have, and we’re already seeing the momentum,” he says.

Now he’s hoping that advertisers, and the network’s audience, will embrace his new vision for MTV as his biggest swings start rolling out next month. “We’re just at the beginning of a really exciting time,” he says. “Now that we have that foundation to build on, the possibilities are endless.”

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.