Tom Freston is not comfortable talking about himself. Sitting in his office at the Oprah Winfrey Network, where he works as a consultant, he seems embarrassed as he describes his role in turning MTV into one of the most powerful forces in popular culture.
Then, he spots an envelope on his desk. As he opens it and pulls out a DVD, his eyes suddenly light up. “Want to take a look at this?” he says excitedly, putting the disc into his computer. “This is what the first day on air for OWN is going to look like.” As video of Winfrey, and countless multi-colored balloons, drifts across the screen, Freston leans back with a broad smile and announces, “This is still the exciting part for me!”
For the man who helped build MTV Networks from the ground up, life is all about doing the work, not so much talking about it. He spent nearly three decades turning his vision for a TV channel devoted exclusively to music into an empire that literally changed how the world looked at television. A traditional network executive might happily take credit for creating something so significant, but Freston is anything but traditional. He lets the product say it all.
“He’s one of those rare executives who embodied the product and the brand and the spirit of the enterprise,” says Brian Graden, former president of programming at MTV, VH1 and CMT. “He responded to inspiration. Most people try to peg his legacy to MTV but he inspired all of us [who worked with him] to live a creative life.”
Freston clearly practiced what he preached, too, carving out a creative approach to his own career right from the start. The New York University business school grad found his first major job literally and figuratively about as far from show business as he could get. Moving to India, and then Afghanistan, he spent the better part of the 1970s helping operate a clothing import/export business in South Asia.
His company “made and lost a lot of money,” he says, but eventually the whole business fell apart due to political problems in the region. Freston returned to New York looking for his next challenge, which came when the he managed to get an interview with executives at a company that was the joint venture between Warner Brothers and American Express; executives there were looking for inexperienced (as in, cheap) people to help to take advantage of this new thing called cable television. “I wanted to do something that I really loved and was passionate about. That kept coming back to music. I had always been a real fan.”
When he convinced them that he also had an entrepreneurial spirit, he was hired. “I was one of the original team of six who developed what would eventually become MTV,” he says. “I was head of marketing, which meant I was splitting an office with somebody, working in a hotel with one phone line, eating pizza, doing the whole start-up thing.”
At that time, in 1980, watching television was a lot like driving through Nebraska in winter — there wasn’t a whole lot to look at. There were three major broadcast networks, PBS and a few independent stations. HBO had started up as a pay network, but choice was definitely not on the TV viewing menu. Programming, according to Freston, “was usually decided by a Brandon Tartikoff guy, a guru at a network who decided what you would watch. We knew we could be good at one thing for one segment of the audience, and we went at it with a vengeance.”
Certainly few cable operators saw any future in a channel that did nothing but show three-minute music videos twenty-four hours a day. Just as difficult were the record labels, which saw no value in giving a network their music videos to play for free. That’s why, as the head of marketing, Freston opted for what he considered a quiet launch. Rather than try for a splashy debut in big cities like New York or Los Angeles, where cable companies were reluctant to take on the channel, he opted to open up in places like Des Moines and Tulsa, where “it was almost like a test market.”
Freston insisted on getting out into the field to see how his project was progressing. “I’d go to these cities a few weeks after launch and find out that we had revolutionized the younger demo of that town, in terms of people requesting songs on the radio and buying records in the stores” he recalls. “We worked with the consumer and felt if we did that, we’d be okay. That’s what our ‘I Want My MTV’ campaign was all about, going over the heads of the cable operators.”
The key for Freston wasn’t just giving viewers hours upon hours of David Lee Roth shaking his spandex-covered behind or Madonna writhing on a gondola in Venice. It was creating a brand showcasing a youthful, energetic lifestyle that viewers would want to imitate. That included creating a workplace that reflected the culture it was trying to capture. The MTV dress code? Anything short of “full frontal nudity,” Freston says. The staff? Nothing but young people who “had to be essentially on a crusade. We wouldn’t hire anyone unless they were music nuts.” Just like their boss.
“He has a relaxed style that was always incredibly affecting,” recalls Doug Herzog, current president of MTV, who helped develop staples such as The Real World and Beavis and Butt-head for the network. “He was a big believer in brands and people. He recognized that what we were doing was fun. He realized how special and unique what we did was.”
Graden still vividly recalls traveling to Senegal with Freston and musician Dave Matthews to work on a documentary about African music. They spent all day at an outdoor concert, and “I remember Tom feeling every note. He didn’t have to say, ‘Remember, this all goes back to the music.’ He just showed it. My favorite memory of working with Tom is how he turned to me [during the concert] and said, ‘Can you believe we do this for a living?’”
His enthusiasm paid off. MTV became such a success that the company launched VH1, geared to an older generation (the company was already doing well with Nickelodeon, serving the pre-MTV crowd). Freston moved up to CEO of MTV Networks in 1987. That was a critical time for his TV baby, which was going through some growing pains. Ratings started diving and changes had to be made.
“The novelty with music videos wore off after a while and we said we really can’t be just about music,” he explains. ‘We had to be about the stuff music is about. Things we can incorporate into our programming. So we started producing programming.”
Soon MTV had series like Remote Control, a goofy spin on traditional quiz shows that introduced soon-to-be-famous performers like Denis Leary and Adam Sandler. The channel was leaving music videos behind in favor of animated series like Beavis and Butt-head and the grandfather of all reality series, The Real World. The company also began adding channels like TV Land, Comedy Central and The Nashville Network (which eventually became Spike), as well as expanding its empire into Europe.
This success helped Freston climb the corporate ladder within Viacom, which had taken control of MTV Networks in the late ’80s, but he never seemed to forget core elements. The magic of MTV, he believed, “should be in the creative side of it…. I thought it was important that the business unit and the president of the network came from the creative side. It signaled that it was important to the company.”
Herzog watched in wonder as, no matter how high Freston rose in the Viacom ranks, he “still gave you the feeling he was very sensitive to what was going on with the creative aspects of [MTV]. He was always conscious of being in the moment.”
Adds Graden, “He responded to inspiration. I remember being on a plane telling him about this new show we had, The Osbournes. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘That’s genius!’ He was in it for the projects, not the title.”
Still, those titles kept getting bigger. By 2003, Freston had helped MTV Networks become a media behemoth, with eight U.S. networks, thirteen digital networks and more than thirty international outlets. His reward? In 2004, he became co-president and co-COO of Viacom in 2004, overseeing MTV as well as Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster. However, the job became so corporate, he started feeling removed from the creative process he loved so much.
So, when company chairman Sumner Redstone dismissed him less than two years later, there was at least a little sense of relief as he got a standing ovation from the employees in the Viacom hallway on his final day on the job. Now he had a chance to reconnect with his roots and find new challenges to inspire him. For instance, he’s been able to combine his love for music with his penchant for charity work (“that’s very important to him personally,” says Herzog) by serving as chairman of the board of U2 frontman Bono’s anti-poverty advocacy group, the ONE campaign.
He has also returned to Afghanistan, spending the past couple of years helping to set up the first private television networks in the country. In addition, he’s working with Farsi 1, a satellite network beaming shows like 24, Oprah and Korean soap operas to the Farsi-speaking world, 80 percent of whom Freston says are in Iran.
“It reminds me of the early days at MTV,” he says, laughing about the predictably negative reaction to the latter venture. “People are saying, ‘It’s like Satan coming into the house!’”
And, just like those fledgling days with MTV, he’s gotten involved in another start-up project by signing on as a consultant advising Oprah Winfrey on OWN, the network she recently launched in partnership with Discovery. Thirty years ago, he took on a job where there were no expectations and produced major results. Now he’s settled into a gig where there is nothing but high expectations, but he’s confident “we have a great idea for a network. We’ll go one step at a time, but I think we’ll make a decent debut.”
It’s far too soon to tell what kind of impact OWN will eventually have on television, but it’s hard to imagine a new network having the kind of lasting impact that MTV did. “We made TV more democratic, gave more control to the viewer,” says Freston. “More ideas were put up on the screen that we’d seen before. TV will keep expanding and changing, but to be in television in the ’80s and ’90s…that was a rush.”