Behind the Scenes at MTV with Van Toffler

The GW graduate and president of Viacom Music & Logo Group discusses media and music at a NY event.

Van Toffler
SMPA Director Frank Sesno with Van Toffler, president of Viacom's Music & Logo Group.
March 11, 2013

Remember that infamous moment in Super Bowl history when “wardrobe malfunction” entered our lexicon? Next came protracted public debate over declining morality, the need for broadcast TV time delays and half-million-dollar FCC fines.

No one remembers it better than Van Toffler, B.A. '80, president of Viacom's Music & Logo Group. He spoke candidly of the event to more than 250 members of the GW community in New York City last Wednesday night at the Times Center. Mr. Toffler was 16 years into his tenure at Viacom in 2004 when Janet Jackson's costume ripped during the Super Bowl halftime show on CBS, which merged with Viacom that same year.

“We honestly didn’t plan that or know about it ahead of time,” he said. “But that’s what’s so compelling about live television and fresh content – the unfiltered moments are what shape our culture.”

And Mr. Toffler knows something about shaping cultures. After a brief stint as a lawyer (during which he represented Michael Jackson’s copyright purchase of the Beatles’ collection of music), Mr. Toffler worked his way up the ladder of MTV, pioneering TV shows (Beavis & Butthead, Jersey Shore), music shows (the Video Music Awards, Unplugged), movies (Election, Napoleon Dynamite), and social programming (Choose or Lose, One Country).

Wednesday night’s conversation with Mr. Toffler was the inaugural event for the Luther Rice Society’s Entertainment, Media & Marketing Alliance, a career-focused group that engages the GW community in New York by offering philanthropic opportunities, mentorship connections and targeted networking.

Mr. Toffler’s winding career path, beginning in Foggy Bottom and ending at MTV’s doorstep, was of particular interest to the crowd. After an introduction from George Washington President Steven Knapp, he discussed his story with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs.

“When I was 19 and studying at GW, I desperately wanted to be around music – those days, musicians sowed the seeds of cultural change. I tried playing piano, I wrote poetry, but I sucked at all of it. Once I realized I had no musical talent, I did some research and thought, ‘How do I get into the industry?’”

Throughout his college years he learned how to stretch out of his comfort zone and explore his naturally curious side.  

When reflecting on his time as a student, Mr. Toffler is quick to point out the differences between today’s students and his classmates and peers. “Today, everything is so accessible and students have immediate and engaging interactions with information. We call this group ‘Generation P,’ because everyone’s a programmer. You can get the shows you want, when and where you want them. So as a creator and aggregator of content, we have to be viewing device-agnostic – open to anything.”

Aggregation of content is one of the next projects on Mr. Toffler’s plate. Artists.mtv is a platform to pull in elements from across the music industry. Right now, fans visit iTunes to buy tracks, YouTube to watch video, SoundCloud to preview albums, SongKick to search for tour dates and artists’ sites to learn more about their stories. Artists.mtv seeks to bring all of those functions together.

After questions and comments from the audience, Mr. Toffler closed by offering thoughts on the music industry as a whole.

“As a personal fanatic and professional producer, I want musicians to get heard, get promoted and get paid. Music itself isn’t in trouble – the business is. The industry has failed the fans and the artists. I’d like to help a crippled music industry right itself.”

And that is precisely what Mr. Toffler intends to do. GW empowered him to test limits and rules and to challenge the accepted norms, which he continues to do every day in his work. “When I stop pushing the boundaries, they should kick me out,” he said.