How MTV Plans to Triple Digital Revenue

Jason Hirschhorn Is Charged With Changing the Network's Reputation

By Published on .

Most Popular
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- MTV Networks' upfront presentation has always been a star-studded affair, with the network group trotting out stars like Jon Stewart, Mariah Carey and the Black Eyed Peas. But this year, CEO Judy McGrath has decided the real star will be digital media. That should send a clear signal to Wall Street and Madison Avenue that Ms. McGrath is taking the 25-year-old company in a new direction.
As MTV Networks' global chief digital officer, Jason Hirschhorn has one of the most unique jobs in the business.
As MTV Networks' global chief digital officer, Jason Hirschhorn has one of the most unique jobs in the business.

Chief digital officer
The man pulling all the digital strings is digital media chief Jason Hirschhorn -- an MTV veteran with buoyant enthusiasm for emerging media. He inhabits a rare space in the relatively small circle of major media conglomerates. Few other companies have a position as elevated as his with purview over domestic and international digital media. He oversees mobile, broadband and video-on-demand strategy -- he'll meet with Sprint one day and with Microsoft the next, and he has convinced his bosses of the importance of being everywhere the MTV viewer might want to be.

"We take our cues from audience," said Van Toffler, president, MTV Networks Music/Films/Logo Group, who recently delivered a keynote at the telecom industry's CTIA Wireless conference. "We're slaves to the audience and the fact is they're migrating to these digital platforms, so we need to go with them. ... Nothing is precious. Even TV."

Haunting the digital conferences
As further evidence of the company's commitment to new media, MTV executives have popped up at all the major digital media and technology conferences. Last year, Ms. McGrath keynoted the Consumer Electronics Show.

Mr. Hirschhorn is the company's go-to guy when it comes to moving content across new distribution platforms. A self-professed fan of everything from Oprah to Arctic Monkeys -- "you can't pigeon-hole me," he says -- his dream was to run a record label. But while studying at NYU, he fell for a pre-Netscape Internet browser and was soon designing artist Web sites for Warner Bros.

He came to MTV six years ago to run Sonicnet, a unit of the former MTVi and one of the top-ranked online music sites of its time, and quickly progressed through the digital ranks managing the VH1, CMT and Comedy Central sites before taking on larger roles within the company.

Archetype executive
"He's really the archetype of this next generation of media executives," said Trevor Kaufman, CEO of interactive firm Schematic, which has worked on digital interfaces with companies such as Microsoft, CNN, Disney and Viacom. "These executives live the digital-media lifestyle -- Jason goes home and plays video games. And they're saying 'here are all the places I like to spend my time; why isn't MTV there and how can we get it there?"'

One of Mr. Hirschhorn's challenges is changing the perception that MTV arrived late to the digital party. Yahoo, for example, touts that it streamed 4 billion music videos last year. MTV, by comparison, streamed about 100 million and estimates it might stream 1 billion this year. And then there's the ever-growing popularity of video sites such as YouTube.com and its clones, which are all stuffed with music video inventory.

And where Rupert Murdoch has captured buzz with a seemingly boundless amount of cash available for mega-Internet acquisitions such as IGN and MySpace, Viacom has been quiet, buying smaller niche properties like Gametrailers, Neopets, iFilm and, most recently, social-gaming site Xfire.

Possible acquisitions
On the acquisition front, Mr. Hirschhorn isn't ruling out anything. The company is interested in small and medium acquisitions, but if the right opportunity -- at the right price -- came along and enabled the company to buy the right kind of scale, Viacom would look at it.

"If there was an acquisition where we didn't have to build anything and it could get us some scale, that's of interest to us," Mr. Hirschhorn said. "That doesn't preclude us from having dealings with other social networks. We don't believe in a walled garden."

Mr. Hirschhorn likes to describe himself and MTV Networks' other digital media executives -- VH1's Tina Imm, MTV's Ben White and wireless chief Greg Clayman -- as the kids who "used to sit in the closet with the dunce hats on." As recently as three or four years ago, digital media was not the department that put people on track for a top job. He recalls Ms. McGrath asking him, after a few years at MTV, "if he was ready for a channel job."

He's still not ready for a channel job, and that's just fine. MTV projects revenues from digital media will reach $500 million in the next three years, up from the current $150 million. (In last year's upfront, MTV Networks booked an estimated $1.5 billion.) MTV Networks has adopted a strategy that goes against the grain of tradition syndication: Mr. Hirschhorn calls the process "exporting an experience" -- whether it's Overdrive on Windows Media Center, a "Laguna Beach" MySpace profile or Urge, the Microsoft digital-music joint venture set to debut in mid-May.

World's largest mobile content provider
On an international level, MTV Networks is arguably further along in the mobile space -- the network is the world's largest mobile content provider, Mr. Toffler boasted at CTIA -- but on U.S. soil its biggest advancement in the past year, especially in terms of ad-supported media, has been the suite of broadband sites that correspond to the network's various on-air channels. MTV Overdrive and Nickelodeon's Turbo-Nick have been joined by VH1's V Spot, Comedy Central's Motherload, MTV U's Uber. Soon, CMT's Loaded will be added to the mix.

The sites were fashioned from a similar framework, but each has its own operating style. Comedy Central, for example, tends to go heavy on original, made-for-Motherload content and its programmers use the site almost as an R&D lab. Uber, because it's geared toward college students who might be unplugged from traditional media altogether, plays the dual role of simulcasting MTVU content and coming up with non-TV broadband services such as games. And expect the company, hoping to exploit the Long Tail potential of its vast library of music and programming, to launch broadband channels that don't have an on-air sibling.

Despite all the activity, MTV Networks readily admits it isn't trying to be all things to everyone, like a major Internet portal. That said, don't be surprised to see it strike a major alliance with one or more portals for a deep content play -- and if it does, it will bring along its advertisers. To that end, they're happy to partner with a MySpace, Yahoo or AOL-type property.

Social networking
"We can aggregate the audience not only on our destinations but other destinations in order to sell more inventory," Mr. Hirschhorn said. "Social networks are huge but starving for programming, and that's a very good thing for content companies, especially those that are on multiple screens and have the quality and scale of programming."

Schematic's Mr. Kaufman lauds the strategy of keeping the VH1 or MTV or Comedy Central experience intact. "We see a lot of clients who are broadcast or content companies. The ones who do it the best play to their strengths from both a capabilities and brand perspective." In MTV's case, he said, they focus on doing in digital media what they've done well in cable-taking a particular kind of relatively inexpensive content and providing the wrapper that makes that content cool or compelling to a certain type of audience.

MTV has been very aggressive with moving media to cellphones worldwide, averaging 2.5 million mobile video streams a month. A good example would be the network's latest mobile play -- Pocket VH1. It's essentially a mobile channel with a library of on-demand programming, much like Windows Media Center or a cable VOD experience. Ms. Imm recalls showing it off at CTIA, where someone paid it the highest possible compliment. "They told me, 'That's really Korean of you,"' she said.
In this article: