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
Headshot of Jason Lynch

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.

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

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.