Thomas E. Freston rose through the ranks to become chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of MTV Networks in 1987. In this position, Freston took responsibility for the management of one of the world's premier suppliers of specialized programming. During Freston's tenure, MTV Networks grew to encompass five basic cable television programming networks, including MTV, M2, VH1, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, and Nick at Nite's TV Land.
Tom Freston was born November 22, 1945 in New York City, where his father worked as a public relations executive. He attended St. Michael's College in Vermont, where he spent a lot of time on the ski slopes and graduated with his bachelor's degree in 1967. Two years later, he had completed work on his master's degree in business administration (MBA) at New York University's highly regarded Stern School of Business. Freston's early aspirations included operating an art movie theater or a nightclub. He spent some time in the Caribbean as a bartender before returning to New York to begin his career.
On October 18, 1980, Freston married Margaret Badali. Together they had one child, Andrew. He has served on the board of directors of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Commission on Music in America. Known for an unpretentious personal style that MTV executive Judy McGrath once called a "'can you believe I'm the president' quality," Freston cultivates the same relaxed style in his employees. When Forbes magazine asked him to describe his corporate dress code, he replied: "No full-frontal nudity." Freston's interests include photography, travel, and collecting antique rugs.
Freston began his career as an account executive with the advertising firm of Benton & Bowles. His portfolio included accounts for Scope mouthwash and the G.I. Joe action figure. He found the corporate bureaucracy restrictive and ineffective, however, and promptly quit. "I had no idea what I was going to do," he later admitted to Forbes. He spent some time traveling in Africa and Asia before settling in New Delhi, India.
While in New Delhi, Freston started up his own textile and clothing business. For the next eight years, shuttling between residences in New Delhi and Kabul, Afghanistan, he manufactured peasant clothes for export back to the United States. There, trendy urbanites loved the chic rags and Freston made a fortune. He could easily have continued this lucrative scheme, but by 1980 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had made business conditions inhospitable. Fearful that his freshly radicalized workers might turn their anger on him, Freston fled back to the United States.
Back in New York, Freston saw an ad in Billboard magazine seeking creative executives to help launch an all-music video cable channel. The joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express would eventually become known as Music Television, or MTV. Debuting in 1981, the network originally relied upon an almost exclusively white lineup of British new wave bands and obscure American performers. Nevertheless, photogenic acts like Duran Duran and Culture Club attracted viewers and paved the way for a greater variety of artists to begin making video clips for their own songs. Eventually, MTV branched out to include original programming as well.
Freston started out in the marketing department, where he helped conceive the immensely successful "I Want My MTV!" campaign that saw stars such as Billy Idol and Sting declaring their desire to have the video channel added to their basic cable package. Freston remained with MTV until 1982, when he left for a two-year tenure as director of marketing for The Movie Channel, a premium film channel. He returned to MTV Networks in 1983 to become vice president of marketing. During this period MTV Networks launched a second video channel, a light pop alternative called VH1. Freston began a steady ascent that culminated in his being named president and chief executive officer (CEO) in 1987.
The year before Freston took control, Viacom had bought MTV Networks for $513 million. The infusion of new capital, coupled with Freston's energetic leadership, spurred the company on to a decade of unprecedented growth and expansion. When ratings did periodically flatten, Freston was quick to make changes. The most sweeping of these purges came in 1997, when a scathing memo by two 25-year-old production assistants prompted Freston to order a complete overhaul of both programming and presentation.
Social and Economic Impact
Under Freston's leadership, MTV Networks experienced the most significant growth in its history and extended its brands to launch a variety of secondary operations, while at the same time maintaining the company's reputation as a leader in the television industry. In 1997, MTV Networks provided Viacom with close to $625 million in earnings, about 32 percent of Viacom's gross earnings. Profits grew 25 percent a year during the 1990s. All of this growth occurred while Viacom's other assets, Blockbuster Video, the Paramount film studio, and Simon & Schuster Publishing, were struggling to turn a profit. "You cannot overestimate the powerful role the MTV Networks have played at Viacom," stated CEO Sumner Redstone in Fortune magazine in 1997.
The phenomenal growth has allowed the network to expand worldwide. By 1994, globalization had made MTV available to 250 million homes in 58 countries. In fact, there were more subscribers in Europe than in the United States. "A key part of our approach has been to localize," Freston told an audience at a cable industry convention. Accordingly, MTV's overseas operations, such as MTV Latino, MTV Japan, and MTV Brazil, emphasized local talent unknown in the United States.
While remaining committed to "narrowcasting," Freston has expressed concern about another industry development of the 1990s: pay-per-view. He feared a split in the television viewing audience similar to the one that took place when cable channels first began to displace the broadcast networks. "If we quintuple the number of channels," Freston told Television Digest in 1994, "there'll be dilution of ratings."
Freston has employed an unconventional management style that relies on few customary corporate practices. An example of his unique way of dealing with problems is the way he handled the merger of the MTV comedy network HA! with the rival Comedy Channel, owned by HBO. Originally the two networks competed fiercely. Freston even sent employees out in the middle of the night to plaster HA! logos all over the neighborhood of HBO chief executive Michael Fuchs. But neither channel caught fire with viewers, and by 1990 both were sputtering on the brink of collapse.
Pride alone might have made other executives reluctant to pool their resources to solve the problem. But Freston and Fuchs got together and agreed that a merger of the two comedy networks was the only way to go. In 1991, they put aside their differences and formed Comedy Central, a joint venture between HBO and Viacom. Programming was consolidated, and a new CEO was brought in to provide oversight. By the end of that year, the subscriber base for the new channel had almost doubled to 22 million viewers.
On the programming front, Freston pursued a policy of nurturing creative innovation and, as he phrased it, "putting people first." Some of the new programming initiatives that began under Freston's leadership included the popular cartoons Rugrats on Nickelodeon, Daria on MTV, and the VH1 concert series Storytellers.
Chronology: Tom Freston
1967: Graduated St. Michael's College.
1969: Awarded MBA from New York University.
1980: Joined MTV as director of marketing.
1981: Launched MTV.
1985: Launched VH1.
1986: Named MTV president of entertainment.
1986: MTV Networks bought by Viacom.
1987: Appointed chairman and chief executive officer of MTV Networks.
1997: Ordered overhaul of MTV programming.
Freston's decision to emphasize animated programming put him in the forefront of a creative rebirth for the cartoon industry. In 1997, MTV Networks announced that it would invest more than $420 million in original animation over five years for both Nickelodeon and MTV. This major investment would encompass animated television series, animated feature films, and other animated products.
Sources of Information
Contact at: MTV Networks
New York, NY 10036
Business Phone: (212)258-6000
Brown, Les. Les Brown's Encyclopedia of Television. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.
Clash, James M. "Mr. Hatfield, Meet Mr. McCoy." Forbes, 30 January 1995.
Gunther, Mark. "This Gang Controls Your Kids' Brains." Fortune, 27 October 1997.
Samet, Jonathan. "PPV To Split Audience." Television Digest, 1 March 1993.
Teubner, Gary. "MTV Networks CEO Thomas Freston Described 'Globalization' of MTV to Audience of International Attendees." Satellite Week, 30 May 1994.