Passion is a word Judy McGrath relishes when talking about family and her role as chairman and CEO of MTV Networks. She tosses it about when discussing hot new shoes, seeing Bow Wow Wow on stage at MTV's first ever New Year's Eve Rock n' Roll Ball or listening to Janis Joplin or Mary J. Blige.
Indeed, the intensity and commitment that passionate people need to sustain themselves can't be manufactured at will, no matter the task. And in McGrath's case, the task involves overseeing one of the most successful groups of TV networks on the planet — an operation that includes 96 channels reaching 400 million households worldwide in 164 countries and 18 languages. Her passion seems to emanate from a life-long willingness to follow her gut instincts.
When Women in Cable & Telecommunications chose McGrath as its 2004 Woman of the Year, they weren't simply nodding their hat to a powerful female executive.
“Our criteria for Woman of the Year is to obviously salute someone who's had a great year. Of course, when she was named chairman and CEO this year, that was a highly coveted position with MTV Networks,” says WICT president and CEO Benita Fitzgerald Mosely. “But Judy has had a long history of success and a record of advancing women in her company. Judy has definitely done things through her leadership that transformed that company and the industry at large.”
When Judy McGrath left Condé Nast Publications Inc. in 1981 to join the company that owned MTV: Music Television at the time — Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment — she had already been working with brands that connected with young women, Glamour and Mademoiselle. “I was hoping and dreaming of writing about music for Rolling Stone,” McGrath recalls. “When I heard about MTV from some friends, I went over with the intention of beefing up my resume to get to Wenner Publishing.”
Instead, she fell in love with “the people, the entrepreneurial spirit, the commitment to staying forever young with each successive generation,” she says. “Nobody had any idea MTV would make an impact on the culture. We were just delaying gainful employment.”
As she moved up the ranks, McGrath and her team created the MTV Video Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, Total Request Live, The Real World and Punk'd, among many other cultural landmarks. Under her direction, VH1 also made advancements with I Love the 80s, Divas and The Surreal Life. CMT: Country Music Television enjoyed its biggest viewership ever since joining the MTV fold, launching its record-setting CMT Flameworthy Awards and Crossroads.
“Besides being so smart about business, she's an incredibly great manager of people. She understands for us to be successful, we have to spend as much time thinking about human capital as well as financial resources,” says VH1 president Christina Norman.
McGrath cites her mother as the first woman to inspire her. “My mother was a great believer in the art of perseverance,” McGrath says. “She was also a feminist before her time and had strong convictions about women in the lead. She died in the early '80s, but I still hear her voice.”
McGrath sits on the MTV Networks Diversity Council. She cites her entire generation, family and friends when speaking of her hand in creating some of MTV's more pro-social efforts — “Choose or Lose,” “Fight for Your Rights,” “Protect Yourself” and MTV's “AIDS Awareness.”
“My pro-social genes come from my parents, who were social workers,” McGrath says. “One of my favorite eras of MTV was the early '90s. Public Enemy. Nirvana. Rock the Vote. Very powerful, culture-changing, very relevant.”