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Freston Touches All the Bases

6/27/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

About a month into his new gig as Viacom Inc. co-president, Tom Freston has dutifully met with nearly all major cable executives under him, maintaining stability and spotting potential opportunities and roadblocks that might face the cable group in the near future.

Freston was in Germany last week to announce an Viacom international programming deal, as speculation over the future executive lineup at MTV Networks continued to percolate back home in New York.

MTVN wants to announce Freston's choice as chief before July 4, but it remains to be seen if that happens.

Internally, MTV Group president Judy McGrath holds on to her status as the odds-on favorite. Most speculation is over how the dominos would fall after that: Who'll replace her, and how might networks in the group be aligned differently?

Sources said the heavy lifting for Freston won't end when the new MTVN president is filled, because then he'll have to satisfy all of MTVN's other players and avoid a top-management exodus that wouldn't look good to Wall Street.

MTVN sources say Freston's well equipped to keep the family together. He's in constant conversations with all of its members even as he takes on new responsibilities, increasing the likelihood any ruffled feathers can be smoothed quickly.

Freston's also reached out to Viacom-owned networks that weren't previously under his purview. He met with Black Entertainment Television executive staffers, including chairman Robert Johnson and chief operating officer Debra Lee, on June 22 in Washington.

According to BET sources, Freston answered questions and allayed concerns about how he'll handle the African-American-targeted network, which operated autonomously under former Viacom chief operating officer Mel Karmazin.

When Viacom bought BET in 2000, Johnson insisted it maintain its independence by reporting directly to Karmazin, and not MTVN's Freston. There had been some speculation Johnson and Lee — both with one year left on five-year Viacom contracts — would leave early rather than report to Freston.

But sources at BET said both Johnson and Lee not only will fulfill their terms at BET but might stay beyond 2005, to ensure BET continues to operate outside of MTVN and remains, for the most part, an African-American-run operation.

“BET is still a stand-alone,” the source said. “It was never merged with MTV Networks, and that's been an important point for both Bob and Debbie.”

BET spokesman Michael Lewellen would only say “the company has no reason not to think that both Bob and Debbie will fulfill the terms of their contracts.”

Several sources call Brian Graden, MTV and VH1 president of entertainment, and Van Toffler, MTV and MTV2 president, the top picks to succeed McGrath.

It's also believed by some that Doug Herzog, who just rejoined Comedy Central as president after leaving USA Network, could be given additional duties at MTVN.

Regardless of who gets Freston's job, some MTVN insiders predict a restructuring of how the various networks are grouped.

For example, McGrath has had oversight of MTV: Music Television, MTV2, VH1, CMT: Country Music Television, Comedy Central and the planned gay channel, Logo.

MTVN Group president Herb Scannell currently oversees Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, TV Land, Noggin and Spike TV.

Several sources claim Spike TV's transformation into a men's network has not gone as well as MTVN would like, and is really not a good fit in Scannell's kids' unit.

From a programming standpoint, it would make sense to group the edgier networks with a strong young-male demographic — namely Comedy Central, Spike TV and Logo — together under an executive with a sensibility for cutting edge, younger-skewing shows.

Other candidates for Freston's job include Scannell, MTVN president Mark Rosenthal and MTV Networks International president Bill Roedy.

Sources said top MTVN executives are bound by lucrative contracts that, legally and financially, would be hard to walk away from.

September