Bill Roedy is a self-described “dedicated internationalist” who also happens to be one of the world’s biggest experts on television.
As chairman and CEO of MTV International, he was responsible for launching hundreds of channels, including the flagship music brand, plus Nickelodeon and Comedy Channel across the globe.
Visiting Australia for three days to speak at a broadcasting summit on the future of television, the affable American businessman shares his tips on:
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- the best ways to gain traction in China,
- the secrets of reality TV’s success, and
- how Apple changed the game for the music business.
His advice for setting up overseas? Hire locals and invoke Churchill: “Never, never, never give in.”
Hi, Bill. How are you? Are you jetlagged?
I think I’ve been permanently jetlagged for the last 30 years. Now that was a long one, it was 23 hours to get here.
What are you doing in Australia at the moment?
Well, I’m giving a keynote speech on Thursday to the Australian Broadcasting Summit.
I haven’t written my speech yet but I will probably talk something along the lines of the future of TV and maybe a little bit of the lessons of developing a global business.
So what is the future of TV?
Oh gosh, you had to ask. Well, you know, it’s funny, I did my farewell tour with MTV late last year and I toured almost all of our 40 offices and the most frequently asked question is exactly that, what’s going to happen?
And my first answer was, ‘If anyone tells you what it is then I say, don’t listen to him or her’ because it’s really hard to predict.
I have the benefit of working in television for 35 years, so I’ve seen a lot of changes and, of course, it evolving from digital to PVRs or PDRs I guess you call them here, HD, electronic program guides.
But now it seems to be on the cusp of something quite big, and what I talk about is that the technology could be as serious as the music industry or the print industry or even the publishing industry.
My hunch is that it won’t be quite that dramatic but it’s evolving into something that’s going to be everywhere, multiple platforms, all the time.
Sometimes these things are generational and they can happen very quickly, but because there’s such a big industry and because the market value, particularly in the States, is so big there’s going to be a lot of people trying to protect it – and that means everything from windows to authentication.
There’s a new concept called TV Everywhere. You go through one distributor and you get all the platforms and that’s what people want, and the key question is ‘can you continue to bundle things?’
The album is not as popular as what it once was, people want the single. People want a story perhaps instead of the whole magazine.
Likewise, you may want a program instead of the whole channel or at least one channel instead of the whole bundle.
If you unbundle the whole industry some people predict it could take 50% off the revenue right away. So there’s going to be a lot of forces to keep it like it is and therefore improving the service.
You know, everything from guides that will navigate all the different platforms to just making sure all the programming is there, combining it with broadband.
So it’s a little bit like peeling an onion, there are a lot of forces pulling back and forth but my hunch is it’s going to be fairly similar to where it is for a while but it will ultimately change.
That’s interesting. I grew up with the big power film-clips of the 80s and the 90s, so I’m wondering to what extent you think MTV is part of American soft power.
Well, that’s very interesting because the one thing that I’m sort of going to ride to the grave is something that I call localisation. Twenty-five years or so ago we were pretty much the only one doing that. Now everyone kind of does it, and a lot of people do it very well, but back then it was controversial because it cost more money.
When you localise you connect with the audience in a much deeper way. Instead of having one burger and one cola, you have these different products and that’s what we successfully did.
It did cost more money but if you go from country to country you’ll see a product that’s dramatically different. In Australia it will be more similar because Australian culture has more similarities to America than the UK, I suppose, but if you go to the Middle East or India or China, you’ll see a completely different MTV.
I think it’s almost the opposite of soft power, if you will, and this was kind of like what turned us on. It reflects and respects local culture and the amazing array of diverse culture around the world.
But it is a combination of the two where you have the MTV brand with the local content.
It is a combination, yes, you’re absolutely right. However, in some countries, people don’t know even that the brand connects back to the States; they think it’s their own brand.
So in Australia, for example, there doesn’t seem to be that same need for differentiation because we’re more culturally aligned with the US?
Yes, that’s true, and probably even more so than the UK, believe it or not.
What advice do you have for companies setting up overseas, as plenty of Australian businesses are trying to do?
Well, the first thing is to design an operation that’s truly local and hire local people with accountability and responsibility, so you have the culture of that particular country in the office as well as on the product.
After that, oh gosh, there’s a million things.
I think hiring good people is pretty key at MTV. Because it is a young service, you like to reflect the audience, so there are a lot of young people working at MTV.
I talk a lot about the mistakes I’ve made, but I think the key success factors were respect and reflecting local culture.
And because internationally we were entrepreneurial for so long it’s always about opening new products.
I had certain guidelines: never accepting no for an answer. I used to quote Churchill: ‘never, never, never give in’. I would have added a few more ‘nevers’ too.
But because you have a ‘no’ almost everywhere in an international environment, the key is just to keep driving forward, driving forward.
Distribution is another key element. We adopted a strategy of not just waiting for cable or even direct to satellite; we want to broadcast so therefore we built up a sizeable audience pretty quickly that advertisers couldn’t ignore.
Breaking the rules – it sounds a little irreverent, and it is. In order to be truly innovative and creative, you’ve got to break the rules and ‘sometimes it’s easier to say sorry than ask for forgiveness’ is something I always say.
And I think that’s something quite unique to an entrepreneurial brand.
Oh gosh, there’s probably a dozen others, but those are some of the things that I think are key success factors.