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A Q&A OF PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE

Bruce Gillmer is running out the door. Ever since the world opened back up, Paramount’s President of Music, Music Talent, Programming and Events, Media Networks—and longtime MTV authority—has been trying to make up for lost time. Pandemic-related pressures began to subside right around the time ViacomCBS announced its corporate rebranding to Paramount, and it’s been a mad dash of lightning-speed weaseling since then. But he’s not complaining. Now, the company is betting big on Paramount+, the streaming platform that launched last year, to bring its team into the future while simultaneously honoring the brand’s history. According to Gillmer, who also serves as Paramount+’s Chief Content Officer of Music, there are hundreds of music-related projects in development.

On the phone, the New York-based exec is fresh off some energizing, investor-studded upfronts. His team has been scrambling to secure talent for an event in Cannes in the middle of Unplugged tapings and pre-production for the MTV Movie & TV Awards (the latter of which has since aired, with viewership up an impressive 40% over last year). Of course, through it all, he’s planning for the big shebang that is the VMAs. Bruce rescheduled his HITS call about 10 times—can you blame him?—but like a relentless tick, we’re impossible to shake off.

Clive Davis: Most Iconic Performances came to Paramount+ this spring. What is it about that series that resonates with you?
Clive is such an iconic figure. He's had a hand in discovering some of the most impactful creatives of our time, so the idea of having a collection of performances that he curated was compelling. And Clive’s 90th birthday was coming up; it was a big year. Being able to work with him and his team at this point in his career… It was a way of paying tribute.

You’re saluting a legend.
Exactly. We love it. It’s straightforward. It’s not trying to be overproduced or overly conceptual. It’s exactly what it says it is. At the end of the day, we just want to bring artists’ stories to life with a depth that maybe the fans haven’t experienced before. It’s about connecting, bringing them deeper, giving them inspiring content and sharing new things about their favorite artists.

Personally, I’m such a music lover; I have a super-wide aperture that covers many genres and decades. Having that trove at my fingertips was amazing. There’s such a diverse array of performances. You’ve got Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart… It’s eclectic and it’s heavy. These are some of the biggest names in music, full stop.

Clive and his team delivered the content and interviews—but your team helped put it all together. How was that process?
It was relatively smooth. We have a great team over here. People from our production team for Unplugged and all our great red-carpet shows, as well as some who work on the VMAs and the Movie Awards, did the lion’s share of that work. But since the content was largely there, it was really an exercise in formatting and sequencing.

What was your favorite part of it all?
The interviews are incredible. Bruce Springsteen’s was probably my favorite. He talks about Clive giving him feedback on his first album. The fact that he was open to criticism, ran off and came back after that summer with some of his most iconic tracks, “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night,” it just sums up who Clive is and his influence. It’s such a good story.

What other music-centric projects are you working on for Paramount+?
We’re resurrecting, reimagining and extending the life of our most beloved music IP—like Yo! MTV Raps, Behind the Music, CMT Crossroads and Unplugged, and the list goes on. We’re producing new episodes with a modern twist but also going back in time and re-clearing the original episodes. That’s a foundational element of our musical vision for Paramount+. All that amazing content and IP that we feel did a great job of bringing fans closer to the artists has a home now and a future. We’re also working on a lot of new projects. We’re getting deep into hip-hop—beyond Yo! We’re getting deep into Latin music. There are literally hundreds of projects I’m excited about that we’re going to roll out in the next year or so.

Tell us about a couple.
The Day the Music Died is about Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It covers how the song came together almost instantly in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way and how it was inspired by the actual day the music died—when a plane crash in 1959 took three of the biggest rock stars of the time [Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson] in one fell swoop.

It's an incredible documentary we're doing with Spencer Proffer—the prolific music producer behind some of our favorite hard-rock albums of all time. Spencer connected with Kirt Webster, who manages Don. They developed the story and came to us. When they were presenting the idea, I realized I didn’t know a music fan alive that hasn’t heard that song at least once, and the story needs to be told. It’s a huge piece of musical history. The movie turned out beautifully. It’s cinematic and emotional. There’s a lot of young talent in it as well. It shows the range, depth and influence of the track. That’ll roll out on Paramount+ around July 4.

We’re also really excited about a docuseries called De La Calle. It focuses a lot on Latin street music, which was really hip-hop back in the day. Think about The Fat Boys, B-Real from Cypress Hill and so many others. It shows a musical thread that eventually leads into reggaeton and the current musical tones you hear from the Latin world—and how each territory, whether it's Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela or Columbia, has its own sound. The docuseries gives you the historical context and takes you on a journey. We see it being a docuseries that runs in perpetuity because there’s just endless content. The story continues to unfold.

We’re going to be doing a lot of Latin-music programming, whether that's through this, Unplugged or documentaries on specific artists. Hopefully, there will be a new performance series, which is still in the early stages of development.

What’s up with Behind the Music?
There are some interesting elements that didn’t exist in its original form. In several of the new episodes, for example, you’ve got the artists watching some of their older performances, interviews or moments that were impactful early in their careers and then commenting in real time. Seeing them react to those moments is super compelling.

I worked on the original first couple hundred episodes back in the day. We’re so proud to have it back up and running. The storytelling remains top-notch. Its atypical format, cadence and twists give the show this added layer of entertainment. It immerses you more deeply because it heightens your expectations. There are constant cliff-hangers.

Does surviving in a streaming landscape require constant cliff-hangers?
That’s part of it. One of the most important things we’ve learned in the world of streaming is about engagement. The last thing you want to do is draw the viewer or subscriber in, give them a cool experience and then not have a follow-up for them. You must keep them engaged, otherwise they're off to the other streamers.

What other hurdles do you face in a streaming landscape?
There's always a hurdle. We’re learning as we go. I think everybody is. It's still so early in the life cycle of streaming. And I think even the subscriber is learning their own viewing habits as they go. It’s constant and it’s difficult, but it’s exciting.

So, you’re just focused on packing your arsenal.
In a way, yeah. You’ve got to have depth, though. Even a couple hundred episodes is like a tree falling in a forest. We want to make sure that everything up there counts. If you just go for the quantity, then it becomes a logjam. We don’t want subscribers fighting their way through a bunch of stuff they don't like to get to something good. That's not fun.

With awards-show ratings down across the board, how are you approaching this year's VMAs?
Most events are down. TV is down; the whole platform is down. The younger demos just aren’t watching linearly, but a lot of them are streaming both long-form and short-form content. The challenge was that the digital side, for a while, wasn't growing quickly enough to keep pace with the exiting on the linear side. In the last couple years, the consumption growth on the digital side has exploded. Our partners on the sales side experienced an awakening as well. Fortunately, we have some iconic events that have so much brand-franchise loyalty, like the VMAs. While the linear number is definitely not what it used to be, we’ve made up for that many times over.

Streaming and social media have changed the game.
The numbers are mind-boggling. There was a 60% global increase in social video views for the VMAs in 2021. For perspective, fans typically have about five weeks to vote in the various categories for the VMAs, and we had over one billion votes last year—and there’s no robot-driven craziness or funny business there. A fan has to be invested to care enough to vote. Plus, there’s a governor, and any one fan is limited to 10 votes.

And it really is a bigger show now. Think about it. This is how it used to be: You and I love a song, so we watch a live version of the performance—and 10 million of our friends watch it at the same time—and then it's over. In today's day and age, it lasts. It's got a halo effect. It goes on for a month, sometimes two months, and people are consuming it in small bits and pieces every day.

The way we measure ratings is a bit archaic. Do you love the direct feedback that social media provides?
It’s amazing in many ways. It paints a much clearer picture than ratings. The honest, unfiltered, immediate, direct-from-fan feedback is incredible. If somebody told us that was going to exist 20 years ago, we would’ve been beside ourselves. When you look at the fans’ connection and their engagement around our digital content compared to the numbers that are reported on linear TV, it shows you that there’s a much deeper connection than the old-school ratings will lead you to believe.

Have you had to change your approach to the creative parts of awards shows?
It has to be so much pacier. If you went back and watched the show 15 years ago, you’d probably see much longer interstitial segments, hosts bantering on a bit, longer acceptance speeches, more awards. Now, over a couple of hours, we only do eight to 10 awards. I think we used to do 15, maybe more. Everything's tightened up, and we try to set up the room with multiple stages, so we can go back-to-back with performances whenever possible. The fans want the right artists and tracks at the right time with incredible production value, and they don’t want filler. And the performances have to jump off. A performance can’t just be slightly better than the versions of it on three other awards shows; it’s got to be a fast-paced spectacle—and, as much as we can, we try to capture lightning in a bottle with the timing.

MTV is a cherished brand. When it comes to the direction and vision of that brand, who’s really in charge of getting big-picture changes across the finish line?
It’s a group of people. Chris McCarthy [President and CEO of Paramount Media Networks and Chief Content Officer, Unscripted Entertainment and Adult Animation, at Paramount+] and I are a big part of that, but we have amazing marketing and social teams. Chris runs all of MTV Entertainment, which is a ton of brands now, MTV, VH1, Logo, CMT. He's even involved in Nickelodeon now and Comedy Central. He steers all those businesses. And he's become an expert in unscripted. I focus on music and talent-based programming on events. Chris and I divide and conquer and cross paths on the brand front. On a daily basis, he and I are making sure we continue to nurture the DNA and take it forward by being pro-social, inclusive and quality-focused.

We’re always thinking about new ways to keep the brand living on the screens and, more importantly, out in the real world. I’ve been a fan since 1981, when I was first exposed to MTV, and I fight for it every day. So does Chris. Luckily, we have many passionate people by our side.

Photos (from top): Throwing out the first pitch at Citi Field with Julie Menin, Entertainment Commissioner for the NYC Mayor's Office of Media, and a Mets-besotted Moon Person, 2018; with Nicki Minaj at the 2018 European Music Awards in Bilbao, Spain; VH1 days with Christina Norman, singer Joss Stone and Rick Krim.

NEAR TRUTHS:
PIVOT POINTS
Breaking down the nuances of a transformational moment (2/27a)
LIVE WIRE:
MICHAEL RAPINO
He's putting asses in seats on an unprecedented scale. (2/26a)
HITS LIST:
CHANGE IS NOW
Is a seismic shift occurring? (2/27a)
ON THE COVER:
TOP DAWG
Evidence that miracles can happen. (2/27a)
NOTHING MATTERS DOES MATTER
Give 'em hell, KG. (2/26a)
OUR TOP 10 LIST FOR 2024
Just kidding. But we'll get there.
STRUM AND DRANG
How guitar music got big again.
GRAMMY GRAMMY GRAMMY
Start digging out your formal wear and let's do this.
THE NEXT BIG MONEY PLAY
it's not what you think.
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