The Global Empire-Builder


Today, “I want my MTV” is a bit of a cliché, but in 1981 it sent a powerful message around the world — that edgy new music network MTV: Music Television was not only pushing the music envelope, but creating an entirely new genre.

And leading the push was Tom Freston, who helped coin that “I want” phrase. Known most prominently for his work as chairman and CEO of MTV Networks from 1987 until his most recent posting as co-president and chief operating officer of Viacom Inc., Freston guided MTV to create a stable of cable channels that stretch the globe.

And along the way, a long list of favorite shows were created, including Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer, Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants; MTV's The Osbournes; and Spike TV's The Joe Schmo Show. And two channels that capitalize on classic TV shows, Nick at Nite and TV Land, were launched.

“MTV defined a lifestyle for many young Americans. It was exactly what cable was supposed to be by serving underserved audiences. And Tom was one of the leaders that epitomized the kind of leadership and talent cable generated,” says Robert Johnson, chairman and CEO of BET Holdings II Inc., whose Black Entertainment Television empire was absorbed into MTV Networks parent Viacom, with closer affiliate-sales, advertising and marketing ties between the basic-cable entities.

“Tom likes to be challenged. But what sets him apart is his easy-going nature in terms of allowing his people to have a voice, interact and get ideas across,” Johnson adds. It was at least due in part to that operational style that Freston and crew were able to grow MTV Networks to reach more than 400 million households in 164 countries and 18 languages through 96 channels worldwide.

Not bad for someone who started out in the textile and clothing import business in New Delhi, where he spent eight years before entering the cable industry.

He first emerged at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Freston became a founding member of the Warner Amex team that launched the breakthrough “I want my MTV” campaign for the channel.

“Tom has a two-part brain; business and creative. He's been able to keep both sides exciting, and he genuinely likes people, advertisers, musicians and employees, which is one of his underrated qualities. He always made it fun, and it's always been about the ideas and creativity,” says Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, a former colleague of Freston's who helped MTV Networks create the Nickelodeon empire.

For Freston, it's always been about global citizenship as well, Laybourne adds. “He is really connected to the globe through music, and the time he has spent in foreign countries. He built a global empire because he's interested in knowing the world.”

In recognition of his work, Freston has been awarded the Governor's Award from the National Academy of Cable Programming, MIPCOM's Personality of the Year, and the Humanitarian of the year Award from the T.J. Mitchell Foundation.

“I have never heard Tom say he created MTV,” says Johnson. “But he sure made it what it is today.”