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VAN’S GRAND FINALE: TOFFLER TALKS VMAs, MTV

It’s a HITS tradition: Every year around this time, we toss questions to MTV/VH1/CMT honcho Van Toffler about the Video Music Awards, which he’s been executive producing since the late 20th century. This February, Toffler announced that he was leaving the company he’s called home for the last 28 years, which gives this Q&A special significance.


There has to be some added emotion involved as you put together your last VMAs.
Live TV invites chaos, and that’s what this show is all about. So I think for me it’ll be a combination of doing backflips and crying at the same time as it comes to a close. I say philosophically to the people working on the show, “Let’s get all the crazy, combustible elements in the room, pour some lighter fluid in the center, throw a match and then get out of the way and see what happens.” Some years it explodes, and some years there are just tiny moments. So it’s definitely an emotional time for me, but I’m gonna try to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Are you approaching this one any differently?
The good news is, I was a proponent of Miley Cyrus hosting, as she is growing up to be a great combination of provocation, chaos and musical credibility. Her influences are so vast, from Kanye to Dolly Parton; she covered a Paul Simon song on SNL, and she loves all kinds of music. And she’s insanely honest and outspoken. So that part seems wonderful to me—it’s not every year that we get the right host at the right moment. And there’s some great beefs in music right now, particularly among the ladies. So I feel like if we can either resolve or expose some beef the night of the show, then we’ll be doing OK.

You’ve long been the face and the voice of MTV to the music business, but the network’s identity is far different than it was when you arrived. Can you offer any thoughts about the future of MTV?

Clearly, music videos migrated to an on-demand consumption model, as we’ve seen with the emergence of YouTube and every other destination. And it’s tough to be a linear program of short form music videos and expect people to stick around for two videos they don’t like to get to a third one they do like, when they can pull up anything on demand, right? So MTV’s, VH1’s and CMT’s relationship with music—and the audience around music—has changed, and that happened early. The change was around narratives, events, telling the stories of the artists, partnering with the artists to become even more popular, to be exposed to a global television audience. But it’s evolved, and I think that that relationship is going to have to continue to migrate to multiple platforms.

"I want a show that’s sloppy and chaotic, where at least seven things go wrong. That’s when I’m happiest."

Part of the issue for big media companies is that they are not tech companies, and Apple and Beats look a lot like URGE in terms of curation, because they’re music lovers. And so cats need to marry dogs—tech companies need to marry great premium content creators, which is part of the reason I left. There’s a content renaissance right now. There are so many distribution outlets, great products and social tech out there that if you hit that right marriage—even as simple as Beyoncé and the elevator cam—it’s explosive. I mean, that was unintentional, but you get the idea. Even Kim Kardashian and Glu Mobile—the game that she created—when you get the right piece of content on the right product, it’s a homerun. And I think you’re gonna see more of these marriages made in hell, where technology people are looking for more premium content and storytelling to make it sticky, to create these over-the-top, premium models.

MTV, VH1 and CMT are going to have to go more along that route and embrace all these new technologies and products. It’s where the audience is consuming short-form, and I think they will continue to do that. As a person out there making content, I realize that that’s where they’re going to need to go.

And that’s really what intrigued you about taking this next step, right?
Definitely. The thing about corporations—which are wonderful because you can be surrounded by the best and brightest—is that quite often if you stay, you don’t necessarily have to be a genius, but you get promoted, and you sometimes get promoted out of the things you love and that you’re great at. And I love sitting in a truck doing a live TV show like the Video Music Awards—unlike any other producer you talk to in television, where they say, “Oh man, that show was tight and smooth,” and they high-five each other. I would be miserable. I want a show that’s sloppy and chaotic, where at least seven things go wrong. That’s when I’m happiest. I like to make serious stuff, but I also like to make stuff that’s up and fun. 

How has the transition been going at MTVN the last six months?
I told the company earlier that I planned to not do another five-year tour, and that news came out in February. I made the transition then. When I told my bosses that I was leaving, they asked me to stay on and executive produce the shows that I was closely associated with and had a strong hand in, like the CMT Awards and the Video Music Awards—which, as a live-TV junkie, I was happy to stick around and do. For the last few months, I’ve been in the process of building my own company and getting some projects rolling, which I can talk about after the show. And because I’ve grown up with all these people and they’re family, I speak to them every day about business, the company and music—but in terms of my day-to-day involvement with the company, that ended in March or April, so the transition was well on its way. 

But this show I’m intimately involved with. We’ve got great elements and music, there’s enough good beefs and there’s a compelling host. So I feel really good about it. I love making stuff, being adventurous and jumping off cliffs, doing the wrong things and potentially getting arrested, but hopefully impacting and moving culture in the process.

Toffler and fellow executive producer Garrett English (l) at press day at the Microsoft Theater on 8/27.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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