Wednesday, November 30, 2005

"The World of the Superniche": MTV's New Chief Digital Officer

Jason Hirschhorn, MTV's new chief digital officer, talks about his new role and the future of personalized TV

MTV Networks, which broke new ground 24 years ago when it debuted as a music-video TV channel, set yet another precedent on October 27, 2005, when it appointed 34-year-old Jason Hirschhorn to fill the newly created position of chief digital officer.

In his role as CDO, a novel title in executive ranks at media outfits, Hirschhorn will oversee the digital media and interactive strategies for all of MTV's programming outlets, from Comedy Central to Nickelodeon to Spike. He had served in number of technology roles at MTV since arriving in 2000 after the network bought his successful Web design and content company Mischief Media.

BusinessWeek Senior Writer Tom Lowry spoke recently by phone with Hirschhorn (he was in Lisbon, Portugal, attending MTV's European Music Awards) about his new role and the future of TV in the changing media landscape. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

TV is a medium that's more than 65 years old. Yet it seems in just a relatively short amount of time, it's facing enormous change. What's going on? For one, the barriers of entry [to do programming] are so much less than they used to be. You can buy a new HD camcorder for under a grand, and you can create your own content and edit with a suite of tools on your computer, and you can upload it. And it doesn't require you to have your own channel, so to speak.

What's interesting is that people are consuming media like never before, just at different times. We measure in prime time and day-parts, but people are on [consuming media] their phones, they're at their desks, and they're watching TV at home.

You look at channels like MTV, doing as well as it ever has, and yet it launches [broadband channel] OverDrive, and that business, too, flourishes. It's not cannibalistic -- it's complementary. It's just different experiences.

The next part of the revolution beyond user-generated content is going to be when it comes back into the living room, with the promise of iTV and the interactivity of the TV screen and what else you will be able to do while you're 10 feet away on your couch.

As the new CDO of MTV, what's your strategy, given this fast-changing environment? I want to cultivate great talent and great experiences for an on-demand, digital environment in which we are creating a ton of programming.

Obviously, there's an upside as a business proposition. TV was thought of as this Old Media business, and suddenly video is the next big thing. Think of the libraries of content we have. Think of the access to talent we have. Think of the way we can dovetail on production in an economical way because we already have crews and shows out there.

And then how do we bring our audience in to it? Interactivity allows our viewers to watch what they want when they want it, reorder it, or do it on-demand. That's just on the content level. The next stage is how our users are going to contribute content themselves and mix it up with our content.

So there's going to be this intersection between filtered and unfiltered content. Filtered being professionally produced content, vs. unfiltered, which is user-generated, where we are going to put our users' programs on the same platforms as our own programming. Hopefully, we'll be able to find some talent out of that, and stars.

It will be the world of the superniche. MTV Networks is already a pioneer in personalization. We've built channels for specific audiences and demos. The next evolution is to go even deeper with that.

What are the risks in pursuing these models? The biggest downside is not to do it, or to execute it poorly, or in some cases to try to control the uncontrollable. We are [strong] brands and have meant something for years to our users. Going into this new world, we're going to have to relinquish some control. I don't see it as a risk. It's opportunity.

You ran a successful Web-design and content business before MTV made you an offer you couldn't refuse. What lessons from running your own shop can you apply in your new gig?
When you're poor, you're a lot more creative. When you don't have the resources, it makes you think harder. And I had to be the programmer, the business person, the marketer. Ultimately, I acquired a respect for other people's jobs, understanding what goes into marketing, understanding what goes into finance, and what goes into programming.

Having my own business gave me a unique view, not at being great at one thing but at being good at putting all the pieces together. The downside of that was that I did everything myself, so I always tell [MTV Chairwoman] Judy [McGrath] that MTV Networks was my graduate business school -- I had to learn to relinquish control over stuff.

The biggest upside that I've had at MTV Networks is finding people and delegating authority and allowing them to be the best they can be in their jobs. Let me tell you when you have a person who's great at programming or great at marketing and they're taking it to a level you never could have, you sleep much better at night.

On Oct. 13, MTV announced it had purchased for $49 million the popular Web site IFILM, a collection of short-form video from Hollywood as well as amateurs. How will you use IFILM at MTV? It's a step in the direction toward exploiting more user-generated content. We have broadband channels Motherload [Comedy Central], OverDrive [MTV], TurboNick [Nickelodeon, Vspot, VH1] and MTV Revolucion in Latin America, and even more channels coming out. Now we want to have a unique hold in user-generated content.

IFILM is going to teach us about that. It's about how talent bubbles up to the top and what works in user-generated content. It's going to be a brand that stands alone. We're going to give it the resources to grow. We want [IFILM] to be a world-renowned brand.

And I'm sure we'll forge some partnerships with Viacom (VIA ) companies for access to content, but you won't see us use it as a promotional platform for our own content. If the IFILM people want to use [our programming], they can. If they don't, they have their own way. We think it's going to be an interesting experiment, and it will be a real business.

Any hints of cool stuff coming from MTV? I would rather not say right now. But I will say that there's so much choice out there, with more to come. It's really phenomenal the pace at which all this is evolving.

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