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R.I.P. Prince: MTV Bosses Past and Present on Their Relationship with the Purple One

Viacom's Doug Herzog & former MTV CEO Judy McGrath recall the time Prince drove through Wyoming for an MTV contest, among other stories.


Doug Herzog, the president of Viacom’s Music and Entertainment Group, was preparing for MTV’s Thursday upfront presentation to advertisers when he got word of Prince’s death.

MTV’s top executives quickly pre-empted the channel’s programming with wall-to-wall Prince videos. “Ironically, we’re trying to as of today make some very public statements about a renewed commitment to music,” Herzog told us, referring to the network’s upfront announcements. “We’re making music our muse. Sadly, we were given a reason to do this today.”

Herzog first joined MTV in 1984, the year that Prince released “Purple Rain” and videos like “When Doves Cry” and “I Would Die 4 U” became channel staples. “Certainly early in his career he was inextricably linked with the early days of MTV,” Herzog said. “We were perfect for each other. He was a brilliant artist. And I
think MTV certainly played a role in the rise of Prince. When I got to MTV, it was the summer of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA,’ The Jacksons’ ‘Victory’ tour, Madonna and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain.’ Those were the giants that ruled the world back then.”

READ MORE: MTV Wants to Bring the ‘Music’ Back to ‘Music Television’

Former MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, who left the company in 2011, recalled how Prince once agreed to an unusual contest tied to the premiere of his 1986 film “Under the Cherry Moon.” The idea: A winner would be chosen at random, anywhere in the United States. Prince would then fly to that town, hold a movie premiere at a local theater, then throw a concert.

“There were things you’d think Prince wouldn’t do this and he would,” said McGrath, who is now the founder and president of Astronauts Wanted. “A woman in Sheridan, Wyo., won. Prince picked her up in a convertible, drove her to the movie premiere, and then played a concert in a hotel ballroom. It was so
inventive and personal.”

That Wyoming premiere is also one of Herzog’s favorite Prince memories. “You had Prince out there with a bunch of cowboys performing at a Holiday Inn. There’s tape of that somewhere.”

Herzog remembered the time Prince visited MTV in 1993, soon after he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. It was part of a dispute he had with his record label, Warner Bros. “He said he wanted to come by one day,” Herzog recalled. “And one morning he came by, there was no real agenda, and all of a sudden I found myself in a small room with him—a couple of people, including Judy McGrath. She asked him the question we all wanted to ask: ‘What should we call you?’ And he said, without missing a
beat, ‘Call me whatever I am.’ I think because of his dispute with the record company he just wanted to make sure that MTV was cool with him, and of course we were.”

READ MORE: RIP Prince: Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and More Honor the Entertainment Icon

Prince also played a private concert for MTV employees in 1991, in honor of the channel’s 10th anniversary. AMC/Sundance TV programming president Joel Stillerman, who was an MTV exec at the time, called
it “one of the greatest live performances I have ever seen. Period. He played a private show for a room full of the most jaded music fans and executives on the planet. He played for almost four hours, and played every hit. He played like it was the most important show he’s ever played ever, and left the entire room speechless.
It was sex, and rock and roll, and funk, and R&B, all delivered by a virtuoso and a perfectionist who was clearly playing like there would be no tomorrow.”

The artist was the highlight of several Video Music Awards shows – including the 1991 ceremony, which featured unusual pants. “You’d get the note, ‘Prince is going to wear assless lace-covered pants.’ Or something like that,” McGrath said. “And it would be fine, because he’s Prince.”

McGrath remembered Prince’s “mischievous quality,” but said he also maintained a mysterious aura. ” In an age where everyone knows everything about everyone, you never knew everything about him. He kept
you curious. But for someone so unique, he seemed incredibly approachable. I wouldn’t say is true for lots of musicians.”

READ MORE: Prince Dead: ‘Purple Rain’ Icon & Oscar Winner Passes Away at 57

McGrath also credited Prince as “one of the artists that really legitimized music video. He was so fucking incredibly talented. Everything about him: style, choreography, attitude, and the most undeniable
musical chops you ever heard in your life. At his core, that once in a lifetime musical talent that was just transporting. The rest was gravy. You got the pleasure of how he looked and moved.” Tony DiSanto, a former MTV exec who now heads up the production company DiGa, agreed: “‘Purple Rain’ is arguably the first real MTV Movie, helping to define the visual language associated with the brand.”

Said Stillerman: ” In those days, there were only handful of artists that you knew when a new video was delivered. Everyone was huddled around a few offices looking at the new Madonna or Michael. Prince was one of those. In a pre-email era, you just knew when a new Prince video had been submitted.”

Music fan Herzog remains stunned at his year’s plethora of high-profile rock star deaths (including David Bowie). “This is the year the music died,” he said.

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