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BW Businessworld

The Boy Who Wanted His MTV

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Once there lived a young boy in Miami. Every evening, he would sit with his single mother and the rest of his family to watch television serials and would let himself happily fly into another world — away from the boring suburban Americana where he stayed. He found television to be the window to bewitching worlds and this fascination only grew strong as he grew up. William ‘Bill' H. Roedy went on to head one of the enthralling phenomena in the history of television: MTV International. He supervised MTV operations initially in London and then in virtually almost all countries across the globe. His sojourns took him to the nook and corners of the world — including eastern Europe where MTV probably contributed to the velvet revolutions that eventually changed the regimes there. It also took him to China, India, Latin America and Africa.

What Makes Business Rock chronicles Roedy's journey and the lessons he learnt along the way. These include a stint in the US Army, fighting in Vietnam, running a nuclear missile base in Europe, studying at Harvard Business School as well as running an iconic international television channel that reflected the passion and brashness of a new age featuring an even newer art form — the music video.

It also chronicles all kinds of incidents, from the one in London where following a power outage someone from his staff hitched car batteries to power the broadcast, to the concert given at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the collapse of the wall in East Berlin. At times, the book appears too much of a personal story — but then, arguably, it is difficult to separate the man from the channel. So how did MTV become, well, MTV? Before MTV, there was just television. Even though MTV — with the help of the music video format — had started telecast in the US, it was its international edition that made the channel a global sensation. And soon it became a symbol of youth, change and defiance.

Quite early in the game, Roedy understood that a vital ingredient of success was to be able to reach an audience in a network, which was fairly restricted both due to the sorry state of technology and the near-monopoly of a few broadcasters. Bit by bit, he ensured that the channel reached its young audience — along the way using both satellite and terrestrial distribution, limited-hour viewership, taking on rival channels as well as negotiating with governments, which felt the channel and its often risqué videos were both dangerous and radical.

Turn It On, Leave It On
Early in the life of the channel, Roedy realised that MTV was a symbol with a very strong American slant. And he started to redefine this image to make the channel more in tune with local tastes. He introduced local music videos (becoming, on the way, the largest local content developer, as well as running its own studio), awards (most major musicians were ‘discovered' by MTV) and, eventually, broadcasting in the language of the market MTV was present in. It reached 165 countries in many languages.

Along the way, he also met a range of people. Apart from the major rock and pop groups (from Paul McCartney to Elton John), he met personalities such as Czech intellectual Vaclav Havel, the Dalai Lama, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and South Africa's reformer Nelson Mandela. And the book gives interesting details about these personalities.

Did MTV change the way many of us looked at the world — apart from the fact that music could now be seen (not only heard) within days of its release, almost worldwide? Remember the bold advertisements on the channel, including the ones on HIV/AIDS? And how the attitude of the channel, reflected in the histrionics of the video jockeys (another MTV creation) inspired youth across the world. Probably, MTV's greatest achievement lies in triggering the change we now see in the way we consume and react to the media, including anticipating and creating the mood for the social media pehenomenon that is sweeping the world. Possibly out there in a Latur or Luang Prabang or Luanda, there will be another Roedy going online and saying: "I'm going to change and define what is done here." Let's welcome him.



Author's Details:
Bill Roedy was chairman and chief executive officer of MTV Networks International during 2007-11. At MTV, he oversaw all its international channels and multimedia business operations for dozens of brands. A US army veteran, Roedy served HBO as vice-president during 1979-89. He holds an MBA from Harvard University.

Badhe is a retail and marketing consultant

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-02-2012)