First Mover: Stephen Friedman

MTV’s new president worships his audience, loves social media, and defends the Situation

MTV president Stephen Friedman

Adweek: When you came in, what was working at MTV and what wasn’t?

Stephen Friedman: Two and a half years ago, we were still programming for Generation X, when this massive wave—the biggest generation in history, the millennials—had come into our demo. So we needed to shed our skin.

AW: How?

SF: One of the most powerful examples we’ve seen is Sixteen and Pregnant. And then Teen Mom. It’s not so different from the DNA of [MTV documentary series] True Life. It really looks at the unvarnished lives of these young women, and the fact that they’re suddenly losing their childhood and yet still young. And the brutal honesty and authenticity of it is resonating with our audience.

AW: What’s wrong with Yo! MTV Raps?

SF: You would not believe how many fans that show still has and we’ve thought about resurrecting the show on MTV2.

AW: You launched a Tumblr last week. Why?

SF: Social media is the telephone and our content is the conversation. I think it’s as simple as that. We need to be everywhere they are. For example, on Facebook, we had 5 million fans [a year and a half ago]. Last week, we had 68 million fans.

AW: Can Twitter expand TV’s reach?

SF: Absolutely. It’s not just about putting marketing messages out. It’s making sure our talent is talking and engaging, that our staff is talking and engaging. That two-way dialogue creates a sense of cultural home.

AW: What makes you nervous?

SF: At MTV, we worship at the altar of our audience. And the moment you take the eye off your audience you run the risk of not being able to connect with them. They’re very demanding. How do you stay connected to them and ahead of the curve?

AW: Where is the curve now?

SF: With boomers, they were protesting the system. X-ers were checking out of it, they didn’t want to have much to do with it. But millennials believe they are the system. So the very idea of rebellion is foreign to them. That made us have to change the way we program to them.

AW: What are you listening to?

SF: Death Cab for Cutie’s new album is great. I’m loving Lupe Fiasco’s album. Then the Decemberists, and then Adele, who has one of the best albums of the year.

AW: You’re politically and socially minded. You’ve done Emmy Award-winning work. How do you reconcile that with the Situation?

SF: [Laughs] If you put an ad spot on cyberbullying in the Jersey Shore, it ensures that 9 million people are watching who are deeply engaged in this content.

AW: Jersey Shore has done well for you guys.

SF: I think it works because it’s funny, and you couldn’t script these kids if you tried. The stuff that comes out of their mouths is priceless. We’re incredibly proud of that show.

AW: What’s your favorite video?

SF: In El Paso, Texas, where I grew up, my parents didn’t have MTV, so I had to go to my grandmother’s house to watch it. And I made an appointment to watch Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” That was a moment.

AW: Who’s your dream Video Awards host?

SF: A genius combination I’d love: Eminem and Gaga.