Who wants their MTV?
After earning a Bronze Star in Vietnam, Bill Roedy took on a different sort of challenge – he brought MTV to the rest of the world
IT MAY COME as something of a surprise to find that the lowbrow-teen-soundbite-attention-deficit MTV was inspired by what happened in the killing fields of Vietnam, but that is exactly how the former head of the network, Bill Roedy, explains how he grew the music channel across 165 countries and left it with a potential audience of two billion people.
Roedy was in charge of MTV for 23 years, and during his tenure the channel became the most distributed brand in the world.
“The whole organisation was designed from lessons I learned in the military,” says the 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who had studied at the West Point military academy and went on to become a Nato missile commander. “Work-wise I was the first on the battlefield and the last off the battlefield; I was quick to take blame but slow to take credit. I viewed all the different MTV channels around the world as small fighting units. And I knew my enemy – in this case, the competition. And I was never going to swamp this big organisation with bureaucracy. The three words I used were: aggressive; creative; relentless. In spreading MTV around the world, it was all about designing a local force and giving them autonomy and accountability so they can react to the enemy or competition – as long as you keep your supply lines and communication lines open.”
Roedy has just retired from MTV, and his engrossing book about his time at the channel and its development into a global broadcasting phenomenon What Makes Business Rock: Building the World’s Largest Global Networksis a penetrative insight into the youth entertainment business. As Bob Geldof remarks of Roedy’s importance in the cultural business world, “He had a core proposition that pop music was the universal lingua franca of youth, he internationalised that and also created a powerful vehicle for change, understanding and good – whilst also building a great business in the process. MTV has changed since he took over, so has the world, and Bill is one of those people responsible for that change. He is a remarkable man.”
Roedy grew up a TV fanatic. “I was brought up by a single mother and there wasn’t a lot of money around,” he tells The Irish Times. “What I clearly remember from my childhood is myself, my mother, my grandmother and my aunties being drawn to the TV box in the living room and even as a child sensing just how powerful a medium it was. I used to memorise the TV Guide– other kids memorised the US constitution or whatever but for me it was what was going to be on television. In those days it was just three channels with no remote control and then I saw that change from three to 40 channels and then into 500 channels.”
A military career beckoned though, and he won a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam. He went on to command Nato missile bases in Italy before studying for an MBA at Harvard. He thought the MBA was an “indulgence” but he needed something to bridge the gap between the military world and the business world.
When he joined MTV in the early 1980s he was charged with globalising the brand. In his book he talks about how “glocalism” was vitally important to MTV’s spread around the world. MTV Europe had to be as different to MTV USA as both were from MTV Asia.
“We were local before local was cool,” he says. “You had to respect the local culture when bringing MTV in.” Setting up 175 channels everywhere from Australia to Brazil to China, he ensured that local audiences were not being force-fed a culture that would alienate them. On the Pakistani and Indonesian channels, MTV airs the Muslim call to prayer five times a day. It was important that local producers and presenters were charged with developing culturally relevant programming to whatever region they were in. On his many travels around the world, he also made a point of escaping from the airport-hotel-meeting routine and “looking the culture in the eye”.
The “glocalism” that Roedy worked so hard on was later adopted as a core mission statement by companies such as Starbucks as they too grew out of their US base and became a global presence.
MTV Europe was still in its growth period when communism collapsed at the end of the 1980s. “I think MTV did play some part in speeding up that process,” he says. “Just as in the same way Twitter and Facebook have played their own role in the Arab Spring.”
What emerges most powerfully from the book is just how different the youth entertainment business is from mainstream business – the normal rules simply don’t apply and in some cases those rules are actually inimical to growth and acceptance.
Apart from all the meetings with almost everyone in the music world – from Bono to Beyoncé – he also met up with dozens of heads of states from Fidel Castro to Nelson Mandela to Bill Clinton. His many negotiations in foreign markets were facilitated greatly by emphasising the “coolness” of the MTV brand and how early on the channel had an “ecological” agenda and an inbuilt philanthropic slant – especially in regard to HIV charities.
“Doing good in the world is good for business,” he writes in the book. “I have little doubt that in many countries MTV’s proven record of engagement without pushing a political agenda made it a lot easier for us to receive government approval.”
From MTV Unpluggedto The Real World(which is credited with launching the modern reality TV genre) to the newest MTV hit Jersey Shore, Roedy has seen the channel go from all music to all reality and almost back again. He thinks the next stage of the channel’s development will be the most exciting as the whole televisual world prepares itself for a seismic change.
“I get asked a lot about the future of TV but the truth is that no one really knows what’s going to happen over the next few years,” he tells The Irish Times. “Sure, there are some trends and the big thing here is having TV sets capable of an internet connection and accelerating this move. But the only thing not resolved is the interface, that really is the key to going forward – are people really going to use a mouse and keyboard in their living room? Either way, the amazingly rich experience of electronic images and storytelling is still going to be around – but in what exact format we still don’t really know.”
A frequent visitor to Ireland – he’s of Irish stock and has a house in Bray, Co Wicklow – his work on HIV awareness during his time with MTV now informs his new job: the promotion of vaccines.
“We need to turn up the volume on the vaccine message,” he says. “You give a vaccination, you save a life. So far, five million lives have been saved in the past 10 years due to vaccinations.”
From global TV to global health, the military man has a new campaign to fight.
What Makes Business Rock: Building The World’s Largest Global Networkis published by John Wiley and Sons