Bill Roedy is the former Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks International.
Whoever thought that television could be a force for good?
Bill Roedy, who started out as a career officer in the United States Army, where he qualified as Airborne and Army Ranger and was a decorated combat veteran in Vietnam, is the former Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks International. There, he and his team built from scratch a global operation of 200 channels comprising 20 brands (including MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central) in 200 countries, reaching a potential audience of two billion, launching the largest number of channels in the history of TV. Prior to that, Roedy was Vice President at HBO for ten years, and was inducted as one of the “Pioneers” of the U.S. cable industry, as well as being inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame Class of 2015. The following is an interview Hermann Vaske conducted with the extraordinary man, who is now an active philanthropist, dedicating much of his time to promoting global health and AIDS education.
Creativity is a word that might be a common theme linking the different areas you have been active in over the course of your career. Why are you creative?
Well, I don’t necessarily regard myself as creative. I like to surround myself with creative people but I think the most important thing in being or trying to be creative, or working in a creative industry, is to set up an environment that nurtures creativity. And big organizations don’t, small organizations do. Personal freedom does. Risk-taking by being bold which, by the way, Dennis Hopper did as well, helps with creativity, as does really breaking out of the box and having no constraints … But creating a suitable environment is, I think, very important and helps creativity.
To foster it, to let it flourish …
And being willing to make mistakes. It’s very important. It’s okay to make mistakes, and you do it with the purpose of being creative. Trying anything that’s different.
Like fail, fail, fail better.
Yes, exactly. Failing, that’s okay. The more mistakes you make, the more you’ll learn from them, but never be shy of being bold and making those mistakes. And, again, creativity is very hard to define. I work with a school now, it’s called the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, which takes creative leaders in various different industries around the world. Typically, they are professionals in their 30s, and it teaches them management because the idea is, it’s easier to teach business and management and CEO skills to somebody who is creative, that it’s easier to do that than it is to teach creativity to a CEO. So this school has a really good purpose. It takes the creative people and enables them to become successful CEOs.
Yeah, of course. I know Michael Conrad…
Oh, you do? I’m on his board. I think it’s a great thing he’s doing because, often, creative people reach a plateau where they cannot become CEOs. It’s a shame because the world – and the business world in particular – needs creative CEOs. And MTV, for example, our organization, we always put a creative person in charge of the channels, and then the COO, the person that was his deputy, became his business manager. And that set the tone in the entire organization – that creativity rules.
It’s interesting that you mention MTV again as an organization. Now when it comes to creativity, looking at your vita, what are the differences and the similarities between running a nuclear base and MTV?
I frequently get asked that question because my career is a bit unusual, of course. The differences are quite obvious. But the fact is that I learned in the military world skills I was able to use at MTV. Organizationally, for example, we set up the global network in a way of small fighting units, tried to keep them small; each of the channels were a hundred people to a couple hundred of people, like a combat unit. And they were able to respond quickly to the enemy, which in our case would be competition, and they were able to reflect the local culture, the local audiences, so they were very similar to small military organizations. They could be flexible, they could be fast in their reaction, which is very important in today’s world. And then the leaders: we try to install a spirit of being first on the battlefield, last to leave the battlefield – in other words, to be very quick to respond to whatever the challenge or the crisis might be. And then in the case of each of the MDs or the CEOs, we try to encourage them to be very quick to take blame and be slow to take credit, which runs counter in the business world but is very much part of the military world. So, in the end, while it doesn’t seem like there are any similarities, I was able to take some principles from the military and apply them to MTV.
If you look at the military, you know, Clausewitz, for instance, the Prussian chief ideologist of military thinking and philosophy …
The German general von Moltke was very famous and highly regarded as a military historian and, again, you don’t see too many similarities between that and certainly, say, rock’n’roll, but I think the trick in life is to use whatever experiences you have, even if they are very different, and apply them to your current situation.
Could you elaborate on your book “What Makes Business Rock”?
Yes, “What Makes Business Rock” was basically … I tried to make it a business book but it I think it was in many ways a business book disguised as a memoir. It’s very much about my own personal experiences in having this great team of people and building a global business. And that’s what MTV was. MTV consisted of 20 different brands by the time I left, two billion people had access to all the different brands, so we were in as many countries as there are out there, two … over two hundred countries, and we were in almost two hundred different languages as well. Not quite two hundred languages, but two hundred countries and in many, many different languages. And, to me, that was the most important thing about the experience: having all those channels.
Again, not just MTV but Nickelodeon and Comedy, whatever, to truly reflect local culture. And that’s really in the end what we were all about. Reflecting and respecting local cultures. And the other part of the success was having access, universal access to our projects. Anywhere in the world, which meant that we were very aggressive and creative, and even relentless in our distribution strategy. So we made sure that we were in as many homes as possible, and we were relentless about making sure that we would get there – no matter how – with creative distribution. And, once when we got there, we made sure that our chronic was truly reflective of what a local culture wanted. We brought in universal and international themes but, in the end, we wanted people to understand and be respected, not only in their culture and their language but also even in music.
And then the third thing we did was that we tried to go vertical in issues that were important to our audience. Often, therefore, that pointed up global health, and the issue we picked was HIV/Aids because that was one of concern to our audiences, almost universally around the world. Half of all the new infections – certainly in the early days and even now – are below age 25, which was our MTV audience perfectly, so we aligned that issue with what our audience was interested in and we directed much of our programming to trying to fight the epidemic, particularly with prevention and anti-stigma.
That brings me, of course, to the question: Can creativity help solve the problems of the world?
Oh, I think that’s true. I think creativity can be a problem-solver in the world, and television is often criticized, for example, as bringing lots of things that people don’t necessarily want to watch – but television can also teach. It can enlighten, and in the case of a problem like HIV/Aids, it can help save lives, so it actually can be a force for good. Whoever thought that television could be a force for good? But it can be a force for good, meaning creativity can be a force for good.
That’s a very nice analogy, to use it as a vehicle in that case. Let’s talk about the enemy, the beta blockers you already mentioned a bit. Who and what is killing creativity?
Killing. Well … there is a lot of things that can kill creativity and I think one of the biggest killers is if the organization becomes too big. And bureaucracy slows everything down. When you have bureaucracy, you have policies and you have rules and regulations, which is very necessary in a big organization but that can easily kill creativity. And yet another killer of creativity is very strict autocratic leadership. And, today, leadership has to be very creative in order to survive in this very challenging world of different problems and challenges, so creativity works best in a form of leadership that is much more diverse. And the other thing is diversity. Diversity of your employees, and your creative sources need to reflect your audiences and, when it doesn’t, that can also kill creativity.
Is everybody creative?
Is everybody creative? People often ask me, “Who are your heroes?” I think everyone has a bit of a hero in them. Likewise when it comes to creativity. I do believe everyone has a bit of creativity in them and I also think that the environment can help you express that creativity or not. Now with that being said, it is obvious that certain people are born with a gene that makes them more creative. But if you are not born with that gene, I think you can also practice a certain amount of – I don’t know, creative tactics if you will – in order to help you be creative.
But you probably won’t be one of the five best camera people in the world, you know; it’s not the genius but you can reach a certain level with techniques and rules when you apply them. What are your creative influences?
Creative influences: I think it’s important to have a curiosity of life for creative influences and to make your spectrum as broad as possible. And if you are exposed particularly to other creative vehicles, that will help with your influence, and certainly for me music has been a big part of that. Music is such a great creative expression and music is also a vehicle for cultural exchange because you can go beyond language. Film is probably the greatest creative expression that we have in our life today. If you look at the history of creativity, many different forms have dominated. Today, I believe film is really, if not the most dominant, certainly – along with television – one of the most dominant expressions of creativity. So watching more film and more television, albeit trying to pick it wisely, also can be a great influence for your own creativity. And then, of course, art. Art is just a wonderful expression of creativity. So I would think those are the three main sources of influences for creativity.
Let’s talk about motivations, the motivational factors behind creative stimuli. What about ambition? How important is ambition?
I think ambition is a very important motivator for creativity. Because a wholly complex world, which is where we are now, with many diverse complicated challenges and problems, requires creative solutions. And you will not reach these solutions unless you are able to find some sort of creativity to bring people together. And creativity can be in many different forms. It doesn’t have to be in just the creative functions of life. It can be in the stricter disciplines as well. Finance or negotiation, or business strategy… it all takes a creative approach. Politics – in this complicated world that we are living in now, with terrorism and climate change – certainly needs creative, innovative approaches. Climate change is a great example because no matter how you believe it’s caused – man-made or natural – it’s happening. And in order to resolve it, it’s going to take some really creative approaches, many of which are being used now – you know, whether it’s electric cars or alternative renewable energy, many different forms – and you have to be even more creative because it looks like the challenges are outracing some of the solutions. I think the ambition to make the world a better place definitely needs creativity.
What is the best way for a leader or a politician to deliver a message?
Well, messages can be delivered in many different ways. And, of course, what we learned with MTV for example, with the Aids epidemic, is that if you do it in a traditional way, if you convey your messages, your key messages of prevention, for example, or anti-discrimination… if you do it in the traditional way of a documentary with statistics and images, that can be impactful, but what can be far more impactful is to break through the clutter of all that and maybe use animation or maybe use a sense of humor even. Any way that can get the attention of an audience. In our case, young audiences are very hard to reach so you have to break through the clutter and be able, in a very creative way, to get the attention of the audience – and I think that is necessary, now more than ever.
That’s why we need fresh ideas, and I come back to the beginning of our conversation on Dennis Hopper. He was always someone, you know, using fresh ideas in a way … It never became dull what he did, don’t you think?
Well, at MTV we would always tell ourselves that you can never rest on your laurels, no matter how successful you are. Don’t play it safe, you have to reinvent yourself. And the way you reinvent yourself is to always refresh, be contemporary, and have a curiosity of life. And it is a fact that young people are more creative because they are less beaten down by life, and mistakes are fewer when you are young. So it’s very important to have young people breathe new ideas into any sort of entity that you may have, any sort of organization, any sort of team. It is very important to have young people being part of that.
This year Dennis Hopper would be celebrating his 80th birthday. Do you remember his appearance at the MTV European Music Awards?
Of course. When I was with MTV on the Europe Music Awards and he came on the red carpet with his charisma and with Bono, the crowd went absolutely wild and crazy of course. And he was doing his Irish thing because he was wearing a little Irish cap (laughs), and the VJ, who was Adrienne, was from Israel, and she was a huge fan of Dennis and had seen all of his movies, so she was quite excited to greet him and she was asking lots of good questions and he was really getting into it, and then they walked onto the red carpet and got ready for the big presentation where he introduced U2 on the show. He did a really clever thing. He did it like a boxing promoter. And he introduced U2 as the greatest, the baddest rock band in history. And he did sort of a countdown and used his creative vehicle of the boxing ring, and then the band came out and Bono came dressed as a boxer going like this. That was quite exciting, the crowd really got into it, and I think it was a typical example of Dennis Hopper bridging that gap between film and music and being very creative. And that creativity always came out whatever Dennis Hopper did, but in this case it showed that he was really into pop culture, not only pop culture but also music of course.
Why did you choose Dennis?
Well, we chose Dennis to come on the show because, even though he came from the film industry, he was very much into pop culture. In many ways, Dennis Hopper is the perfect analogy with MTV because he is a rebel, he is a maverick, he is extremely creative, he symbolizes counterculture, which is MTV, and in many ways he has defined counterculture over the years so he is a perfect match for MTV, and we were quite pleased that he agreed to come on the show – and it wasn’t his first time either. He’s also been on the movie awards, he was given a presentation as the best villain for a movie, so he’s been on MTV a couple of times and, again, even though he comes from the film industry, he is able to bridge all the different aspects of creativity. He was really perfect for MTV. He was a rebel, he was a maverick, he was a warrior. He was an artist, he was a poet, he was a writer. And he was a great photographer, he had a long history of photography. In many different ways, Dennis Hopper realized his creativity, and for us that made him quite an icon. It actually made him a hero. I think he was a unique individual. And Dennis Hopper chose film as his primary vehicle to express his creativity, but anyone who knows anything about his life knows that he went in many different directions. He had a keen eye for art, and for photography, but also for music. He was actually on the Gorillaz album, he performed on the Gorillaz album as a music artist. So he was able – uniquely, I think – to express himself in many different ways, and that’s what I think made him, in your words, so eternal. And I think eternal is a good word: he was creative up to the day he died. And he will always be revered and respected by the young generation even though he came from a different generation, because he expressed their creativity in such a number of ways, and also he was counterculture – and that’s what MTV is about. Recognizing that there is another way, swimming upstream. And that’s exactly what Dennis Hopper did.