McGrath, Judy 1954–
President, MTV Networks Group
Born: July 2, 1954, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Education: Cedar Crest College, BA, 1974.
Family: Married; children: one.
Career: National Advertising, copywriter; Mademoiselle, senior writer; Glamour, copy chief; Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company/MTV Networks Group, 1981–1987, copywriter, on-air promotions; 1987–1991, editorial director; 1991–1993, creative director; 1993–1994, copresident and creative director; 1994–2000, president, MTV and MTV2; 2000–2003, chairman, interactive music; 2000–, president.
Awards: Community Achievement Award, Do Something Foundation, 2000; Founder's Award, Rock the Vote, 2001; Matrix Award, New York Women in Communications, 2001; Humanitarian Award, Martell Foundation, 2003; Television Century Award, PROMAX&BDA, 2004.
■ Judy McGrath was president of MTV Networks Group, one of the world's top brands. Originally started as a cable channel devoted to showing music videos, MTV grew to en-compass news, talk shows, and reality programming and made forays into online entertainment and news. McGrath was with the company from its beginning in 1981, rising from copywriter to creative director and eventually occupying the top management position. Although she officially outgrew MTV's core demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds sometime in the late 1980s, McGrath continued to exude interest in and excitement about the tastes of MTV viewers. She remained aware of youth trends with extensive surveys of the target audience and listened closely to the opinions of the college interns who cycled through MTV's corporate offices.
AN EYE ON THE BIG APPLE
McGrath grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but knew early on that she wanted to find a career in New York. She was a voracious reader of Rolling Stone and the New York Times arts and leisure section. McGrath became convinced that the people she read about were the kind of people she wanted to know. She attended Cedar Crest College and earned a bachelor's degree in English. Her writing ability combined with a passion for music that was instilled in her by her father led McGrath to formulate a goal of working for Rolling Stone.
McGrath made it to New York not long after graduating and took a job working for the Condé Nast publishing house. She was a copywriter for Mademoiselle and a senior writer for Glamour. McGrath still had her sights set on Rolling Stone when a friend told her that a new cable start-up called MTV was hiring writers. Drawn to the musical content, McGrath made what would become a characteristic leap into the void.
BUILDING THE MTV BRAND
In the early years at MTV, McGrath and others were working with very small budgets, creating advertising and promotions and formulating ideas in-house. Even after becoming successful, MTV continued to work this way. Within two years of going on the air, MTV was turning a profit. In 1984 McGrath helped launch the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards. In 1990 McGrath, acting as editorial director, was responsible for the creation of television's first reality show, called The Real World.
Throughout the 1990s McGrath took on extra projects, working hard to climb MTV's corporate ladder. In 1991 she became creative director and worked to bring another side to the teen-focused network. In 1992 she helped launch the Choose or Lose voter registration campaign to spark interest in the presidential election. The following year she produced MTV's inaugural ball for President Bill Clinton. She also developed the Fight for Your Rights campaign—the first of which addressed issues of violence.
McGrath was responsible for the launch of Beavis and Butt-Head in 1993. This animated series inspired outrage among critics because of its gross humor but was one of MTV's most successful programs. Beavis and Butt-Head created more impact than any previous cable program. Under McGrath's leadership MTV continued to draw audiences and ratings throughout the 1990s. With an increasing focus on original programming, MTV Networks Group in 1996 launched MTV2, which followed the mostly video format that MTV had pioneered.
McGrath's willingness to take bold steps was evident. When she was offered the job at MTV, the company was an unknown cable start-up. It was not her dream job of writing for Rolling Stone, but McGrath had seen it as an opportunity to move up. In the new and undefined territory of cable television and especially in the freewheeling world of MTV, McGrath successfully took on leadership positions. Her philosophy for keeping MTV lively and timely was to keep constant tabs on the interests of the youthful audience.
One of the most influential elements of the MTV programming strategy was abandoning the strategy every three to four years. Under McGrath's supervision MTV constantly reinvented itself to meet the demands of its demographic. The result was that in 20 years MTV penetration went from fewer than one million to more than 333 million households worldwide. In 1999 an Interbrand survey ranked MTV the world's most valuable media brand, valued at $6.4 billion.
McGrath's management style included an open-door policy that allowed anyone to pitch ideas for new content. McGrath was responsive to ideas from interns and especially from members of MTV's target demographic. McGrath always considered MTV to be revolutionary and maintained that goal through constantly challenging the prevailing programming. When choosing employees McGrath looked for people she could trust and let them do what they wanted.
McGrath's policies and beliefs worked. In 2004 MTV played a significant role in Viacom's (MTV's parent company) 12 percent increase in income to $6.8 billion in the first quarter. Ratings for MTV and Comedy Central had increased. The two networks had more gross ratings points in their target demographic of 18- to 34 year-olds than any other television outlet. MTV itself had six of the top 10 programs on cable television.
As MTV Networks Group president, McGrath was responsible for MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT (Country Music Television), and Comedy Central. Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV, commented in a company press release on McGrath's abilities, "[She] is a remarkably talented creative executive who has brilliantly led MTV from one success to another, growing the business dramatically along the way."
sources for further information
Gunther, Marc, "This Gang Controls Your Kids' Brains," Fortune, October 27, 1997, pp. 172–177.
Morris, Chris, "MTV Reaches Out to Audience Via Research," Billboard, September 26, 1998.
Richardson, Lynda, "She Wants Her MTV: Actually, She's Got Her MTV," New York Times, June 11. 2003.
Russel, Deborah, "Presidency of MTV to Be Solo Performance for Judy McGrath," Billboard, July 23, 1994, pp. 5–6.
—Eve M. B. Hermann