MTV President Stephen Friedman on why he's leaving the network and his greatest achievements
Today, MTV President Stephen Friedman, who has been at the network for 18 years, announced he was stepping down from his leadership role. In an internal memo, Friedman wrote, “…I am leaving to return full time to what tempts my soul to rise. My next adventure will be focused full time on giving back, on social impact, and on applying what I’ve learned from MTV about the power of brands and storytelling to create positive change.”
Originally hired to run MTV’s pro-social department, Friedman was promoted to president of the brand in 2008. Under his rein, he shepherded iconic MTV series like Jersey Shore, Teen Wolf and Teen Mom. EW talked exclusively to Friedman about why he made this great decision, his memories at MTV and what’s next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to leave MTV?
STEPHEN FRIEDMAN: I love this place and I’m going to miss it. But it was really clear after all this time, I wanted to get back to my first passion: mission-driven work. Judy McGrath hired me way back in 1998 and wanted a pro-social department. When I came and interviewed, she said, “Your job is going to use our superpowers for good.” It was a dream job to harness the power of the brand and the power of the creative here. So that’s really what lured me in in the first place. I was able to do that and we won some primetime Emmys. It was a phenomenal experience.
They gave me the opportunity to launch MTVU. Then, in 2008, they approached me to run MTV. It was one of the first brands that understood the power of storytelling to entertain but more importantly deepen the connection to the audience and have an impact.
After 18 years, I want get back to that work full time. Fortunately, now there are all these businesses that are mission-driven at their core. Whether it’s Patagonia or Warby Parker or Tom’s Shoes, all these businesses are kind of marrying with a double bottom line where the mission-driven aspect is part of it. I’m trying to figure out where I can have the most impact in terms of giving back.
You’ve had an incredible 18 years at MTV. This must not have been an easy decision.
I’d say over the last year or so I’ve been thinking about [leaving]. MTV needs to be reinvented every couple of years. I had a two-year contract so when I was coming up on my final year, I said to my boss “I want to let you know now in advance, I’m ready.” And that was in April. We kept it very quiet in part because we wanted a very smooth transition.
What are your proudest achievements in terms of MTV?
When I got the job in 2008, we had a few hit shows but The Hills was groundbreaking. But at the time, my boss said, “What’s going on? We really need to examine where we are.” There was a need for a major reinvention, very much of a letting go of Generation X. There was this massive wave of millennials coming in.
At the time, we needed to get into scripted so Teen Wolf was one of our first forays. I remember a young women focus group around 2008. The moderator said, “What is the most authentic show on television?” Two women almost simultaneously blurt out, “True Blood!” We were like, “What do you mean? It’s about vampires.” They said, “We get that it’s a made up world but the writing is so good that it’s like great fiction. You see yourselves in the characters even though they’re not at all connected to reality.” It was very clear at this time that sometimes the best way for authentic representation is scripted. While Teen Wolf is not real life, it was a hit with our audience. It played to their sense of. “Oh, these people are outsiders.” There was a point of identification.
The other thing was we needed stripped down, bare, brutally honest reality. You couldn’t make up Jersey Shore. I think why it did so well is it became a sitcom. It became a family where you had parents that were a part of it. Every week there was a Sunday night dinner where they all had dinner. It was kind of throwback to older traditional settings that our audience was craving. I don’t think anyone could have predicted what a cultural force it would be.
At the same time, I remember being in the room when Lauren Dolgen pitched the show 16 & Pregnant. I was like, “Oh God that sounds like a train wreck.” And yet Lauren really made a great case. I said, “You’re right it’s going to be compelling television. The only two things I ask for: One, it really is a cautionary tale. And two, you need to partner with the national campaign to end teen pregnancy.” I’m sure I made their lives miserable. But Lauren never complained. That show from the beginning did well and Teen Mom is still one of our hit shows.
These economists did independent research [on 16 & Pregnant]. They looked at ratings, twitter volume, impact to different health centers around the country. I only heard about it when the New York Times called and said, “These renowned economists saying that part of the national decline of teen pregnancy is due to these two shows.” That is the power of storytelling. That’s easily one of the prouder moments I’ve had at MTV.
The VMAs are always raucous. Do you have funny memories about that?
One for sure was my first year running MTV and doing the 2009 VMAs. I’m sitting in the truck with the executive producers and my boss Van Toffler. We are watching it live and all of a sudden we watch as Kanye gets up on stage [and interrupts Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech]. We saw it and we were like, “Oh my God.” It turned out to be an epic, historic moment. I knew going into this year’s VMAs it was my last. So I’m standing there in the truck and there is Taylor and Kanye [on stage again]! It was a nice closure.
You also took over the reins of Logo and that network has had its challenges but seems to be on a good path. Has that been gratifying?
That’s only been the last year and a half and the team built an incredible foundation. It enabled us to take big risks, like putting Cucumber & Banana on. It was a brilliant show. This younger LGBT generation feels like the representation of them is so much broader than 10 years ago and are now looking for a place that can be there own. Now you can take those risks whether we’re doing documentaries or scripted shows or Trailblazers. I think it’s a moment now to honor those iconic people that have laid the path. That has been phenomenal. It’s been incredible to see both Logo and MTV2 have record highs—Chris McCarthy [General Manager of Logo MTV2 and VH1] deserves credit for both.
Do you know what’s next once you leave MTV? A vacation?
I’ve definitely already started talking to a number of people to map out what the next adventure will be. I’m going to take my time to figure it out. First I think my partner and I are going to go on a nice, long vacation.