MTV’s seemingly permanent perch atop a certain rung of popular culture is due, as single-handedly as any giant enterprise can be, to the work of Tom Freston. The man who ran MTV for 18 years—and worked there for much longer—turned the fledgling channel into a global institution and cultural phenomenon, and introduced the world to a couple of things that you might have heard of: reality TV, hip-hop, Beavis and Butt-head and music videos. Mr. Freston, a preternatural talent scout, presided over MTV’s golden days, expanding the network to Europe and Asia. Later, he expanded MTV Networks beyond the mother ship, helping to create Nickelodeon, Nick at Night, VH1, Comedy Central and Spike, and shows for each, including era-definers like The Real World, South Park, Blue’s Clues, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Daily Show, Behind the Music and Rugrats.
In 2006, just two years after Mr. Freston was promoted to run Viacom with Les Moonves, Sumner Redstone fired him. Mr. Freston’s sin was apparently not pushing a big enough wheelbarrow of money to purchase MySpace, and allowing Mr. Redstone’s archrival Rupert Murdoch’s Fox to snap up the shiny social-media object for $580 million. As we now know, MySpace almost immediately pooped the bed, and Fox had to unload it for $35 million; no word on whether Mr. Redstone called Mr. Freston to eat humble pie.
Since leaving Viacom, Mr. Freston has resisted the lure of a corporate return or a life on the golf course. Instead, he has gone on a globe-trotting tour, re-engineering Bono’s global anti-poverty campaigns, consulting on an Afghan TV company (not to mention Vice and OWN), bringing Republican leaders to East and Central Africa, and investing in development and humanitarian projects in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. While Mr. Freston’s impact on the global media world has been unparalleled, the past five years—including the sweet vindication of the MySpace debacle—suggest that creating the MTV Generation may have been just Act I.