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Baseball and MTV: What could be more American? But the Japanese and Cubans are baseball fanatics, too. And MTV — the heartbeat of U.S. youth culture — now has a bigger audience outside the United States than domestically. MTV Networks also means more than music videos these days. In fact, the flagship cable channel, MTV, is getting more attention for its reality-based programming like “The Real World” or “Road Rules” than the latest music video by Limp Bizkit. And it’s not only the MTV channel the network is filling. There’s also VH1, a separate channel that started out with music videos for boomers and that now has a signature program of its own, “Behind the Music.” The Nickelodeon channel has intelligent, slightly warped children’s shows. The latest addition to MTV Networks: CBS’s cable stations, brought into the fold as a result of parent company Viacom International, Inc.’s May acquisition of CBS. Helping to manage this empire is senior vice president and general counsel David Sussman. He heads a legal and business affairs department of more than 30 lawyers, who do everything from ensuring that the “Rugrats” movie creators have the rights to the songs that are used in the soundtrack to dealing with a rambunctious, creative, and young staff. And, Sussman stresses, his department helps fashion the cable empire’s business strategies, whether it’s devising a response to music industry challenges like the Internet or absorbing divergent cultures like CBS’s The Nashville Network (TNN). Corporate Counsel editors Rorie Sherman and Anthony Paonita lunched with Sussman recently at cable TV chef Mario Batali’s latest venture, Esca, a couple of blocks from MTV’s Times Square headquarters in New York. Sussman tried to enjoy Batali’s southern Italian seafood cuisine while talking about his previous employer, New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, MTV’s current challenges, and Bob Dylan, the first person he ever deposed. Corporate Counsel: So how did you get to MTV? Sussman: I got a call from a headhunter, simple as that. CC: You were working for Steinbrenner when you got the call? Sussman: Yes: from November 1, 1989, to June 30, 1997. That’s a very long time. I was initially hired as general counsel in an organization that has only one lawyer. In 1991 I became the chief operating officer. So, really, from 1991 to 1997 I was involved in every facet of the Yankees’ business and George’s business. I was on call 24 hours a day. There are a lot of pluses in that kind of environment. It’s very heady, particularly for someone like me, who loves entertainment, who loves sports. You’re going 1,000 miles an hour every day. CC: Is the atmosphere at MTV more corporate, less personal? Sussman: I wouldn’t say MTV is less personal. One of the hallmarks of the organization is giving individuals significant latitude in the nature of their work. Particularly for the creative type, the 26-year-old graduate of NYU film school who gets to see her stuff on the air. It’s an environment that allows individuals to have an impact on the business of pop. So it’s very personal. I don’t know whether this is a character trait or flaw, but having spent 10 years working with George, I learned to roll with the punches, deal with difficult people who were very demanding … sometimes excessively so. I was able to figure out how to do a job that was professional, correct, and sound. That’s the part of the personality makeup that worked well transitioning to MTV Networks, where there are a lot of strong, creative, gifted people — but who now have to be managed in conjunction with other people and businesses. CC: Is MTV a very young office? Sussman: The average age of employees is about 29. There are a couple of old farts like me in management. I skew the average up. I’m pretty much the oldest person in my department [at 46]. Our Christmas parties are really young … lavish … in- your-face, dramatic — loud. They start really late. The first one I attended I showed up at 9. The party technically starts at 8; I thought I’d be fashionably late. But they don’t really start until midnight, and they go past 3. CC: Are you a music fan? Sussman: I have been into music almost as much as I have been into baseball. [I'm] probably not as current with music as I am with the current lineup of the Yankees. But one of the things about MTV Networks is that it’s broader than just MTV. There’s Nickelodeon, which is for young kids. There’s also VH1, which is closer to our demo [demographics], and they actually play the music I enjoy and the artists I pay attention to and for whom I have an affinity. I like jazz, blues, traditional sixties and seventies rock: Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. CC: What’s the most important aspect of your job? Sussman: The most interesting and most demanding part is the role the GC plays counseling senior management. A big part of what I do is work with Tom Preston, the CEO, as well as the president of each of the networks, advising them day-to-day on issues as they arise. Their questions run the gamut: Can we do this? What are the risks? What are the employment issues? How do we structure this department? Do you fire a director mid-project? The issues are fun; they’re challenging; they keep you on your toes. I have to be abreast of every facet, from what’s going on the air in the core TV business, to what’s doing with the Internet, what’s going to happen in three years. How is MTV Networks going to fit in with Viacom’s business plans in the next five years? It’s these issues and the people and the mix of creative and business that make this job extraordinary. CC: Who are your outside firms? What do you use them for, and who are your main lawyers there? Sussman: We use Shearman & Sterling for major commercial litigation and transactional matters: Stu Baskin for litigation; Stephan Volk and Steve Giove for transactions. Weil, Gotshal & Manges does our music performing rights, copyrights, and related litigation; Bruce Rich and Ken Steinthal there. And we use Irell & Manella for entertainment litigation; Richard Kendall. These are firms and people that MTV Networks and Viacom have had long-standing relationships with. And I place a very high value on working with lawyers who are intimately familiar with our work, culture, business philosophy, and, more broadly, the industry that we operate in. CC: The entire MTV Network legal function is centralized under you? Sussman: Right. MTV Networks is like a corporate parent for all its channels, including Nickelodeon and VH1. And those channels have international affiliations. What attracted me to the job is that the international profile of the business is so different from baseball, which is so clearly, for now at least, a U.S. entertainment business. MTV is in 80 million homes in the U.S., but it’s in 220 million homes outside the U.S. And we’re striving to be a much more international entertainment player and phenomenon. There’s also great potential in the global marketplace to expand the MTV brand, which is what has happened in the U.S. Here it’s now much more than a provider of music videos, which is what it started out as. Part of the challenge abroad is figuring out the global links and strategy for a company that has had such a U.S. cultural identity. We have 32 lawyers in the U.S., seven in London, two in Singapore, one in Germany. And we just acquired CBS cable, which includes the Nashville Network and CMTV [Country Music Television]. One of the clear adjustments for our group is the assimilation and integration of the CBS cable businesses into ours. CC: You have this cutting-edge, hip New York company, merging with … Sussman: Bass fishing, NASCAR racing, and “Dukes of Hazzard” reruns. Actually, we lost the NASCAR racing in a bidding process; but we prevailed in litigation solidifying an agreement we’d struck with the World Wrestling Federation. So beginning this fall, four wrestling programs will come to the MTV Networks family: one on MTV and three on TNN. This is a very new process for us. It’s going to be an interesting cultural adjustment both ways. I mean, for the folks who work out of Nashville [where the CBS cable stations' legal team is based], to work with us is an equal challenge. They’re very talented; they know their audience really well. They’ve been able to have a profitable business, working on a shoestring. CC: How did you acquire the skills to run your legal department? Sussman: Learning how to manage is a really difficult thing for lawyers. Lawyers generally have intellectual approaches to work that are different from management skills. A lot of lawyers have chosen the direction they’re going in their career to avoid managing. Part of my internal growth has been recognizing that there are tremendous challenges and satisfaction in being a good administrator and manager. Most lawyers think management is the real drudge part, something to be avoided. But it’s like any job: Once you get into it, you realize that this can be done well and can be hugely satisfying. In fact, you can do more and work better as a team. I think I was fortunate having my Yankees experience, where I did significant management work. There was a less formal structure, but it was a great transition from being the lawyer with eight or nine people working on a project to being the Yankees COO supervising 50 people and getting them to work together effectively. CC: So what exactly does your department at MTV Networks do? Sussman: Each channel — VH1, MTV, Nickelodeon — has a general counsel. At VH1, the GC and two lawyers do the channel’s business affairs work; then there’s also a team of business people/support people, about 45, who do rights and clearances and make sure that the stuff that goes on the air is, in fact, stuff that we have the rights to. Similarly, at Nickelodeon, there are nine lawyers: one or two on the West Coast do nothing more than make sure that, for example, with the “Rugrats” movie, the director, producer, ancillary rights are all properly negotiated. In addition to the channels, there are some areas that are centralized under MTV Networks, such as litigation and intellectual property. Transactional work is referred to the Viacom legal department. Our department of law and business affairs is different from other [companies that] have separate law departments. In movie studio work, the business affairs side is sexier, the one that lawyers gravitate toward. So we made a conscious decision to collapse those two departments into one. As a result, we get the work product delivered, attract top-notch lawyers, and they have a greater entertainment value [laughter]. Because that means that you’re not just a lawyer … and I don’t mean to diminish that, but … the role starts with the germ of an idea and continues until that idea is conceptualized and realized — as opposed to being brought in by the client at some point when they say, “Now let’s bring in all the lawyers to do a field memo or write a brief.” Our lawyers work shoulder-to-shoulder with the client as a partner in developing the idea, figuring out how to negotiate it, how to acquire the rights, what’s the best model for it to work, how to administer the project. CC: What big projects are you working on? Sussman: Certainly at the top of the list is figuring out where the new media is going — particularly for MTV. Music is such an attractive medium, and the ability for users to enjoy it on the Internet is going to have an impact on MTV. Can something that’s popular with 14-year-olds now, like “Total Request Live,” be popular three, five years down the road? In a few years, they’ll be able to experience it on the Web. Will the advertisers who support us now, with these programs, be willing to do it down the road? MTV is going to have a great role in the music industry figuring out the mixture of Web and TV. The rules are still so unformed. Not obvious, but really important for our network, is that we just inherited TNN. It’s totally different from everything that we are used to working with. It’s just as widely distributed as any cable network in the country. It’s as widely distributed as MTV or Nick or VH1. It’s not as adaptable to an international audience as MTV. CC: How are you getting to know your new colleagues? Sussman: We’re dedicating a lot of our time to learning about their business. We’re spending some time in Nashville, figuring out what are their thought processes, building their brand. Whether it’s TNN or some other network, the challenge is to figure out what is going to be an exciting programming medium. The cultural differences are huge. CC: You’re from New York, aren’t you? Sussman: I’ve lived in New York my whole life, except for five years when I went to college [at the University of Pennsylvania] and took a year off. I went to Columbia University School of Law and worked in the city afterwards. CC: After law school you … Sussman: I spent a year at a firm that had a mixture of corporate and midsize clients, a lot of entertainment clients. The first deposition I attended, and second-chaired, was Bob Dylan’s; he’d brought suit against a former manager. And I thought, “This is my idea of practicing law.” CC: What’s the best part of the job you have today? Sussman: It’s collaborating with talented, creative clients and legal colleagues. That was one of the things lacking in my last job. Not that there weren’t talented, creative people in baseball, but it was a smaller operation — no other lawyers — and it was less of a team effort. The team was on the field, and everyone else was doing their job. At MTV, I’m surrounded by people who are funny, irreverent, and creative; they’re visionaries to some extent. The business people, too. So it’s a very good mix of right brain-left brain. CC: What don’t you like? Sussman: I wouldn’t put it as starkly as that. The part I enjoy the least is the contrast from the part of my former job that I really liked, which is being in the center of everything. There wasn’t an issue that I wasn’t either particularly familiar with or, but for George, controlling. But with an enterprise as large as MTV/Viacom, I can’t have my fingers into every facet; it’s diverse. CC: But now you have more time for a personal life? Sussman: Yes. It sounds like such a clich�, but … a lot of years were subsumed by my work life. No summer vacation, very little time for other vacations. The last three years have been a period of catch-up. I can really enjoy spending time with my daughters. As they reach teenage years, I realize I have a limited window to spend time with them.

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