In between monitoring unannounced celebrity cameos at the VMAs and overseeing the creation of the next hit TV show, Stephen Friedman, MTV’s president, prioritizes a company-wide dedication to social responsibility. When he hears statistics about high teen pregnancy rates, Darfur’s mass genocide, or the frequency of depression among youth in the U.S., he sees an opportunity to impact MTV’s audience for good. Fascinated by the media’s ability to catalyze change, Friedman joined MTV in 1998 to kick off the company’s first department of Strategic Partnerships and Public Affairs. Now that he is president, business and social responsibility are a fluid entity. Friedman’s generosity is deeply embedded, it’s simply part of his core, and he works tirelessly to ensure that the social values MTV was founded upon–and which parent company Viacom strongly support–are amplified.
Friedman’s generosity traces back to his youth. Upon hearing the Hebrew term, tikkun olam, which translates to a shared responsibility to heal the world, he wasn’t able to extricate the notion from the fabric of his being. He attended Wesleyan University (which he calls a “hotbed for activism”) and accepted a job with a nonprofit after graduation. Working for PEN American Center, he witnessed the positive power that media could have on society. Intrigued by the idea that media content acts as a lightning rod for social change, he transitioned into the media consulting business. A risk-taker at heart, he left the consulting firm to work on his own; soon after he was approached by MTV to lead their new “Pro Social Department.” MTV was established by socially conscious minds and spreading social good was just as much part of its ethos as entertaining. This dedication aligned perfectly with Friedman’s interest in using media in a transformational way.
As head of the Strategic and Public Affairs department, and later as head of mtvU — MTV’s college network–he realized that college students could be united and mobilized in a powerful way. In 2004, when students on university campuses were outraged over the conflict in Darfur, Friedman took advantage of MTV’s unique position among this young demographic to empower them to make a difference. Friedman went to college students and crowd-sourced the creation of a viral video game that would educate players about the conflict, a risky idea that MTV backed. Upon the game’s release, it received a great reception with millions of plays and translation into multiple languages. By putting faith in the Darfur Is Dying game, Friedman and his team not only validated his audience’s voices but also helped spur a massive conversation. MTV was awarded the Governor’s Emmy Award, one of media’s most coveted recognitions, gaining the nation’s attention and prodding other media outlets to step up their game. “That was a powerful moment of trusting the audience,” Friedman said. “Also the idea that this little channel, mtvU, that people hadn’t really heard about, had suddenly raised this awareness in a much broader global way based on a video game.”
Another notable initiative was inspired by rising teen pregnancy rates. Early in his tenure as president of MTV, Friedman green-lighted the development of 16 and Pregnant with a strategic partner, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. The show and its successor Teen Mom have became some of MTV’s highest-rated programming and every week offer their young audience an example of the harsh realities of having a baby before adulthood. MTV’s partnership with the National Campaign helped effectively educate the nation about the consequences of unprotected sex as a teen. MTV changed the view of teen pregnancy in the US simply by telling the stories of young women dealing with it. Cut to 2010 and a new CDC study reported that teen pregnancy had fallen to its lowest rate ever. Friedman doesn’t claim credit for this achievement, but other studies and experts name 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom’s cautionary storytelling as a factor in the decrease.
“The first mission of MTV is to entertain, but when it can be wedded with pro-social and activism it can be a lot more powerful,” he says. “And I think it creates a much more visceral connection between us and our audience.”
Work, life, and generosity are integrated into most everything that Friedman does This commitment to service spans far beyond television programming. Friedman is always working to create new opportunities for MTV employees to direct their talent towards making the world a better place. Recently he teamed up with Catchafire (my organization) to spearhead a pro bono movement and inspire his team to use their skills to help build capacity for nonprofits. This collaboration resulted in the makeover of CEO, an organization that provides employment opportunities for people with criminal records. He’s noticed that his teammates come back from working with the organization changed. “I’ve seen the staff in the elevator after they’ve spent time on this project and they feel like they’ve won the lottery that they got to work on it. This is something that personally means a lot to me, but the fact that the staff feels so moved by it, I realize we are blessed to work here.” MTV’s secret sauce is a leadership full of generous and passionate risk-takers who understand the power of engaging entertainment to educate and mobilize a young generation.
With Friedman’s guidance, pro-social is no longer just a department at MTV–it’s at the heart of the network. Friedman understands the power entertainment has to attach people to a cause. The world of corporate social responsibility has changed. Writing a check twice a year just won’t cut it–a company has to live and breathe the social. “We are doing a disservice if we don’t at least ask the question,” he said. “Is there a pro-social angle that can enrich the connection we have with our audience? Our audience expects it. Activism is woven through their life.” With such a close relationship to millions of young people, they are responsible for upholding the highest of standards. As the bar continues to rise, MTV and Friedman are constantly innovating to be a leader in the media field, focusing on creating unique, engaging, and impactful programming.