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TOFFLER TALKS VMAS

Viacom Music Group Head on the Artists, the Moments, the Booty and More

The morning after the MTV VMAs, Viacom Music Group President/CEO Van Toffler was just groggy enough to mistakenly agree to talk to us. We asked him about the show, its legacy and current initiatives at MTV and sister nets CMT and VH1.

The 2014 VMAs earned 13.7m total viewers across all airings on Sunday night, down from last year’s sky-high ratings but once again the summer’s most-watched cable telecast and the #1 cable telecast with P12-34 and teens. What’s more, the show drew more than 7m on-demand streams, prompted more than12.6m tweets (with 259 trending topics) and some 63m interactions on various social networks. The MTV mobile app also had its biggest day yet.

Toffler describes the 2014 broadcast from L.A.’s Fabulous Forum as “one of our prettiest and best-sounding shows, with some killer performances and memorable moments.”  While acknowledging that the show wasn’t “riddled with controversy,” he describes it as “the year of women—and the year of the booty.”

“We don’t always know what kind of VMAs we’re going to get—the loud, raucous ones or the incredibly meaningful, poignant ones,” he notes, citing Common’s remarks about the unrest in Ferguson and Miley Cyrus’ sending a formerly homeless young man to accept her award and tout her nonprofit. “This was a bit of both. We don’t strive for raunch or controversy, but we do put combustible elements together.”

He also stresses an approach designed to “let things breathe,” rather than hewing to the standard awards-show approach of performance-award-commercial-repeat.

So what evoked the most feedback? “The primary things are Sam Smith—everyone is blown away by his voice and the poise of his performance—as well as Nicki Minaj, who had a bit of a wardrobe issue and had to hold her dress together; Miley and Common addressing these social issues; and a lot of people were buzzing about Beyoncé.” He also notes the “career-lifting” performances of Ariana Grande and 5 Seconds of Summer, and cites Taylor Swift’s intense preparation. “Taylor put so much work into her performance,” he marvels. “She’s clearly left the Country arena and gone squarely into Pop.”

“Talking to Miley afterwards, she said, ‘I just wanted to sit back this year, but I’m coming next year.’ She was already plotting out her performance a year in advance.”

The venue also made a stellar contribution to the evening’s success, he says. “The Forum rocks,” Toffler enthuses. “I remember having an initial conversation with Irving Azoff about a year ago, and saying we’d be the first awards show televised from there; we felt how intimate it was, and it’s built specifically for music, unlike Staples, which is also a sports arena. At the Forum you can feel how well the music plays.”

With the VMAs over, Toffler is free to focus on an array of new initiatives. “MTV, VH1 and CMT are going to get loud about helping artists launch projects,” he promises, citing an array of partnerships and ventures that leverage broadcast and digital platforms to raise awareness.

Among these are the Twitter First partnership (used to promote Ariana, Miranda Lambert, the recent Michael Jackson set and others), which he says generates as many as 100m impressions about upcoming releases; a deal with Spotify to generate playlists and provide streaming on MTV’s site, reaching some 60m unique users per month; and MTV- and CMT-branded artist apps that allow users to follow their favorite artists and get pushed tour dates, release info and other content.

Toffler emphasizes that in a world where music is available anytime, via myriad devices, Viacom’s music channels can provide context—or, more precisely, storytelling. “We want to connect the fans to the artists and give them access and tell their stories to create this unique, premium content,” he relates. “Whether it’s Unplugged or Crossroads or Storytellers or documentaries, we provide that background about why you want to follow an artist or buy a record.”

He also points out that such music properties within the Viacom ecosystem as mtvU, MTV2, Palladia and CMT’s Pure Country are exploring the prospect of more live shows, reviving the spirit of the highly influential TRL with countdowns, music and variety.

The nets’ scripted series, meanwhile, feature music “wall to wall,” offering vast opportunities in the age of Shazam. (He also touts a forthcoming MTV fantasy series, Shannara, that features “elves and wizardry,” as well as byzantine plots in the spirit of Game of Thrones.)

Toffler says that his primary fixation over the past year, however, has been the company’s extraordinary collection of music and pop-culture clips, which features unique (and often previously unaired) footage of everyone from the Rolling Stones to President Clinton and encompasses candid discussions of music, live performance, auditions and more. “At the risk of sounding immodest, it’s really the most valuable visual vault of the history of music around the globe,” he marvels. “We need to figure out the right way to curate it and put it out into the world.”

We don’t know what form it’ll take, but we’d watch that. As long as there’s more booty.

TAGS: nograybox
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