Wardrobe Malfunctions and Dead Rock Stars: An Open Letter to Sumner Redstone

by M.C. Antil on May 23, 2010


(Editor’s note: A version of the following first appeared in M.C. Antil’s regular column in CableFAX, a cable television trade publication, the week following Janet Jackson’s apparent “wardrobe malfunction”  during the MTV-produced halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII.  Sumner Redstone is the Chairman of Viacom Networks, the parent company of both MTV and CBS, which carried the game.)


Dear Mr. Redstone:

The names John Lydon and Joey Ramone may not mean anything to you, but I can assure you they do to Tom Freston, Judy McGrath and your MTV brain trust.

Lydon, Ramone and their ilk were rock ‘n rollers in whose spirit MTV was created.  Their music was so loud and passionate it became something of a religion to a generation of incredibly pissed off young people.  It had so much rage that it unnerved folks even half my age, while scaring the ever-loving crap out of people at your end of the spectrum.  That made it all the more appealing to all those kids who, I promise you, would rather die than ever grow to be as old as dirt, like us.

When it was first launched, young people embraced MTV like no network had ever been embraced.  Within two years, there wasn’t a media brand anywhere in the world any more identified with its loyal viewers than MTV. In fact, sociologists came to label those kids the “MTV Generation.” 

That, sir, is what you call brand power.

Mr. Redstone, you know that a brand is the relationship between a product and its consumers.  And that relationship is worth a great deal to companies. That’s why we pay more for Morton’s Salt than we do for generic salt, even when we know there’s no difference .  In a hyper-competitive environment,  that’s what you call a difference-maker.

I am asking you to stop abusing MTV’s brand.  Stop taking one of Viacom’s most valuable assets – the bond between MTV and its audience – and putting it to work pimping for dusty relics like CBS .  It’s not helping CBS, and it’s killing MTV.

Johnny Rotten is spinning in his grave

It wasn’t until this year’s Super Bowl that all this crystallized for me.  Janet Jackson, a fading pop diva?  And Justin Timberlake, a  boy-band wimp?  What were they doing on an MTV-produced halftime show?   In fact, what is MTV doing anywhere near a show designed to appeal to as many people as possible, while offending virtually no one?

Somewhere, Johnny Rotten spent halftime of this year’s Super Bowl spinning in his grave.

The way you ride MTV hard and put it away wet reminds me of what Michael Eisner and Disney have done to ESPN.  When I was at ESPN, a friend used to say that we had a brand fans wanted to sit down and have a few beers with – and she wasn’t sure the operative word wasn’t “few.” 

In other words, the brand was loved because viewers  felt it was one of them.

What Mr. Eisner has done since in the pursuit of synergy is to take ESPN’s brand and drag it out of the bar by its ear. He’s neutered it, stretched it so thin and sanitized it so utterly, that it’s lost much of what once made it so loved by its core audience. 

Sure ESPN left the toilet set up, but that’s exactly what viewers loved about it.  It was just like them, only cooler.

And while ESPN will argue business is as strong as ever, my sense is they should be careful.  Disney’s heavy-handed synergy and relentless cross-promotion could soon make ESPN’s viewers feel like their drinking buddy has found religion and left them alone at the bar. 

Besides, let’s be honest, ESPN is no longer cool.  Really cool guys don’t have to keep reminding you how cool they are.  Cool is just something they are.

Mr. Redstone, what makes one a successful CEO does not necessarily make one a great brand builder.  And outside of Discovery, National Geographic and a few others, I see some life-threatening erosion eating away at cable’s strongest brands – all in the name of synergy.

Wouldn’t it be better to treat each brand under the Viacom umbrella as a separate  entity and allow the head marketers of each to compete with one another?  And if they can’t survive on their own, shouldn’t you just kill off the brand — or at least put its lead horse out to pasture?

Internally, rather than joining hands for a little Kumbaya, how ’bout a little game of “Survivor: Viacom?”  If CBS or Blockbuster can’t hack it, vote ’em off the island.  Hell, don’t let ’em Tiki torch paradise.

This is just me, but I’d much rather run a company with a handful of well-defined, well-loved icons, than one in which cross-pollination has created such a random collection of  corporate brands that most of them have blurred beyond recognition and offer consumers little to get excited about, or latch onto.

The next time the NFL comes knocking on your door looking for a half-time show, let Nickelodeon or VH1 take the lead. 

Keep MTV off the field, if not out of the stadium altogether.

Hell, let MTV hang out on the street corner where it belongs…you know, smoking cigarettes and skipping school.

Respectfully yours,

M.C. Antil

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