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THE DNA OF THE VMAs: A FEW QUESTIONS FOR BRUCE GILLMER

ViacomCBS President of Music Bruce Gillmer has been at the center of a whirlwind of activity as MTV readies its star-studded VMA extravaganza for 9/12 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. With Doja Cat hosting and performances by the likes of Justin BieberOlivia Rodrigo, Lil Nas X, Camila Cabello, Lorde, Kacey Musgraves, Machine Gun Kelly and more, the show looks set to be a reminder of MTV’s cultural potency just as the music net celebrates its 40th anniversary. But as he dreams of Moon People, Gillmer fervently wishes we would get lost in space.

Why is there such a heightened sense of anticipation around this year’s show?
This is potentially our biggest VMAs ever, in a year that's very significant for our brand and ViacomCBS as a whole, given that it's MTV's 40th anniversary. Then there’s the significance of what the world has just gone through with COVID and trying to come back to normal in terms of artists reconnecting with their fans.

You also have to acknowledge the heaviness of what's happening in the world with Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It's an extraordinarily dynamic environment for what has traditionally been a hyper-relevant event.

With all these anniversaries coming at the same time and the ongoing pandemic, the show seems to have been infused with a certain energy in advance.
You're right. And the source of all that energy is a combination of the artists, the fans, our core production team and the MTV brand. Everybody who touches the show is unified around getting on with life and celebrating music and all it can do to heal.

We’ve done half a dozen or more large-scale awards shows during COVID. And I think the artists and audiences alike are really over this sort of virtual pre-shot performance route. So to be able to stage the VMAs in all its glory—we'll have well over 14,000 fans at Barclays—is incredible. To be able to reconnect with the audience and the artists and have millions of fans around the world experience that after almost two years of the pain and limitations of COVID, to have this moment, is deeply motivating and powerful.

Can you say a bit about the health protocols you have in place?
We're taking extraordinary precautions to keep everybody safe. ViacomCBS has very conservative, strict guidance beyond what the CDC and state and local authorities gave us. On top of all that, we're going the extra mile to ensure that our vision remains intact.

I realize it’s controversial to some, but it will be a fully vaccinated audience, full stop. We have a large mosh pit where there will be extra precautions taken—those fans will be vaxxed and tested, given their closer proximity to talent. Anybody working in and around the stage or close to talent will be tested every single day and masked, with visor shields on top of the masks. There will also be a very strict testing protocol for anybody working on the show. So it's a combination of all the appropriate PPE, rigorous testing and the appropriate distancing, all in an effort to keep everybody safe and healthy but also to maintain an incredible moment on what we consider the most ambitious stage we've ever had.

What can you tell us about the presentation?
We have two “A” stages, which is very unusual. Typically, the bigger awards shows—including ours—would have some satellite stages and other performance areas scattered around the venue that could accommodate smaller-scale performances. But we have two full-scale stages that will allow us to go from performance to performance with no break. That enables us to increase the pace and the number of times we can go back-to-back with performances in a show where we're going to have close to 20 acts. That means about 35% more performances than we would normally do. We're also spanning many genres: rock, alternative, Latin, hip-hop, pop. It's a very diverse show.

In a very deliberate way, we're also going to tip our hat to MTV's 40th anniversary. You're going to see some surprises—some names who’ve been associated with MTV throughout the years. It'll be a very robust mix of talent past and present.

So… a Buggles reunion, then.
It’s funny—we were actually considering how to incorporate a little bit of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but ultimately it was a bit too literal for us. You're nevertheless going to feel that heritage throughout. We’re really over the moon with the lineup.

What about the handing out of awards? How do you adjust that for a faster-moving show? Per tradition, we’ll have somewhere between eight and 10 award sequences in the show, including tried-and-true ones like Video of the Year. For the first time, we're bringing the Global Icon Award to the VMAs. And there will be a bit of a twist; sometimes we’ll do a “podium look,” and sometimes we may choose to present something offstage.

We're also trying to make sure we have connections, chemistry, between presenter and talent. We're keeping these moments super-tight and limiting award sequences to only the ones that matter most to the audience.

What inspired the choice of Doja Cat as host?
We wanted someone extremely relevant and credible who will be entertaining and compelling and able to really do the job—not too many people on the planet can host an awards show. We decided to take a look at some of the biggest names and most dynamic personalities that have a connection to MTV or specifically to the VMAs. Initially we thought we’d lock down eight or so of these names for punchy, short sequences. But we realized we needed a host as a thread to weave it all together.

We landed on Doja Cat because she's somebody we've championed from day one. Her personality is so dynamic. She has the credibility and the right charisma and energy to do this. It’s not a typical hosting gig—it’s more of a starring role. There will be limited tosses that open moments for her; she’ll intro things that she's excited about, that resonate with her. You’re going to see a whole other side of Doja.

It hadn't really occurred to me before, but she's one of the most MTV-ish artists currently on the charts.
She really is, both musically and visually. That’s exactly why we love her for this.

40 years on, music video doesn't have the same place it once did, during the first wave of MTV; it has a different place in the cultural diet. How does that change the way the VMAs are conceived and presented?
What I find incredibly interesting, and what keeps me excited and passionate about this whole operation, is the fact that music video was the seed. And the ethos of music video, even though it’s spread out across all these different platforms—with MTV an important piece of that puzzle though maybe not the center of the universe—will become more and more dominant as we move forward. We have a lot of things cooking in that respect.

Video has become truly pervasive. It's seeped into the culture in such a way that even with a completely different landscape from what we had in the ’80s, it's built into the DNA of the VMAs. The show doesn't feel any less connected to music video than it did decades ago. Music video is infused into pop culture, almost like hip-hop, which began as a musical form and became this pop-cultural phenomenon and finally just integral to the culture—it’s in your fashion, your vernacular, your walk. Video is that deeply ingrained in the culture. It still feels as right as it did decades ago.

 

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