A&E: A Minute With

As President of Fuse, Marc Juris oversees the first viewer-driven, all-music television network. Assuming leadership in January 2002, Juris manages all network strategy and operations, including the re-branding as Fuse (from Muchmusic USA) in May 2003.

Prior to taking the helm of Fuse, Juris was executive vice president and GM of the AMC (American Movie Classics) channel. He was also instrumental in the development and launch of MetroChannels, a package of three regional cable channels created for the New York tri-state area (including a staple channel of my homeland, News 12 Long Island).

Juris has worked in other pioneering areas of TV including development of sponsored short-form series for blue-chip advertisers, and as Creative Director at a boutique ad agency, GM Communications. Marc Juris is a native New Yorker and graduate of Syracuse University, where he majored in business.
Marc was kind enough to take time to sit down with me at Fuse’s New York office and street-level studios at 11 Penn Plaza, across from Madison Square Garden.

Harbus: Could you talk a bit about your career; how did you come to television, to lead Fuse, and what has guided your decisions?

Marc Juris: I had a very interesting journey to this particular industry and role. I feel that wherever you want to go, whether it’s running a network or simply running your career – you just have to do it differently than everybody else. Most people take a conventional route, then get stuck in a bottleneck with each other. To succeed you need to stand out somehow.

I was actually a corporate finance major at Syracuse. Of course, when you’re in school you learn business on a very macro level, and it seems fascinating. Then you get a job and you’re basically counting lug nuts [laughs]. That threw a wet blanket on everything I thought corporate finance was about, because, I was not an accountant, I wanted to do corporate finance.

So I had this skill set that was either typical if you’re in corporate finance and accounting, or very unique if you want to be in television or movies. So I quit my job as an Analyst and became a Page at CBS. I had to move back home, but I persevered, and my Analyst training gave me such a different perspective. I found I could pick up the creative side while really understanding the underlying business details, and that helped me really fly through the system.

In the end, I think everyone values the business mind. The creative mind is crucial to this industry, but if you want to lead a network or any entertainment organization, you really need to understand business, understand that you’re for-profit, and enjoy that role. Many ‘creatives’ that go on to run a studio will say ‘I’m too far from the set.’ I really like both sides, and that has served me well.

Harbus: What is unique about running a music network? How does Fuse compare to your experience leading other TV properties such as AMC?

MJ: I always like to say ‘TV is TV.’ Sometimes people think we’re in the music business, but we’re not. Whether I’m at AMC, or at Fuse, we’re in the TV business, and the idea is to make TV that’s watchable and entertaining. The product here is based on music, but we still have to stick to basic TV principles: get a viewer, hold a viewer and keep them coming back. Which is difficult now because there are literally 500 channels.

It’s about establishing a voice. For us it’s about reaching that teen audience that is so elusive, but also very open-minded. They are the most willing to find a new brand, almost wanting a new brand. It’s the nature of that part of growing up. That serves us well, because it has allowed us to say we’re what’s new in music television.

Harbus: Fuse has not been shy about embracing the challenge of taking on MTV. What’s fun about being the upstart in a notoriously competitive space? What are the challenges of taking on the established music television players?

MJ: In television, different categories are represented by multiple editorial points of view. There’s not just one movie channel, or one pay channel. There’s HBO and Showtime. There’s CNN and FOX News. There’s always someone else and that makes both better. I think competition is always a great thing.

When I first got here, I realized all the music channels out there are owned by one company [Viacom, owner of MTV, MTV2, VH1, CMT and BET]. That’s a really bad thing for the viewer, for business, for everyone. So the first thing we did was ask ‘where are they not?’

It’s really easy to look at a channel launch and say: ‘we’re going to need $100 million for programming and $50 million for an ad campaign!’ But, you can spend all that money, and if you don’t have the voice right, and the attitude right, you’ll fail. We want to express a voice in everything single thing we do. [So we] say ‘we are radical, we are subversive, we are bratty, we are our audience.’

Fuse lets you do something so absurd and ridiculous that it has to get noticed for its sheer bravery, courage and creativity. We got Sally Struthers to advertise it. We have no set tag line, no set logo. Every branding expert in the world, and every professor, and everyone will tell you: ‘you must have one logo, and must burn that into someone’s head.’ That’s why we don’t.

I don’t think MTV has done anything wrong-they’ve done only everything right. The issue to me is that they’ve changed. They’re a victim of their own success in that there are kids now whose parents, and maybe even, in some cases, their grandparents watched MTV.

Harbus: When Fuse ‘grows up’, how do you keep it feeling different? You recently jumped to the top of the list for channel loyalty among teen viewers. What is your longer-term vision for maintaining this connection with your audience?

MJ: It’s always an issue in business – when you are the little guy with nothing to lose, you t ake big, bold risks. I always used to say, before the 500 channel universe came along, that the #1 idea always came from the #3 network. If convention said ‘don’t do a game show’, people would try a game show because they get desperate. And then it clicks, and suddenly the whole world does game shows. That’s always the issue – keeping it fresh, keeping that ability to take risks.

Whatever the size of the network, I feel you can never lose the spirit of the brand. You can never succumb to what you think is a safe, easy solution because you lose your true vision and identity.

Harbus: How have you balanced the need to sell the re-launched network to advertisers while pursuing the risks you want on the programming side? What approach did you take in communicating Fuse’s value to advertisers? What has the reaction been?

MJ: I think marketers have gotten incredibly smart about attracting the teen demographic. Abercrombie & Fitch, to me, is brilliant. Apple is brilliant. In two very different ways, but equally so. We find some advertisers, Nike for instance, who really get that it’s not about the size of a network, its about the quality of the environment. For those brands, we have very little selling to do.

In fact, we find advertisers saying ‘we wish we could give you more money because you’re so effective for us’. Our record label advertising business has quadrupled in a year. We have so many new and returning sponsors because there are so few places that have a credible environment, and they know that.

We’re careful that we don’t overtly sell on air, or if we do, we make fun of it. Our audience gets that approach. In some cases, product integration on TV is like fingernails-on-the-blackboard, other times it’s really seamless and smart. Advertisers understand that now. The consumers are really wise to it, and the advertisers are getting wise to it too.

Harbus: Fuse has been very vocal about a commitment interactive, ‘user-driven programming’, echoing many of the big ideas heard in the late-90’s hype of ‘convergent entertainment’. Are convergence and interactive music TV really here?

MJ: As with a lot of things in business, a new idea hatches, then Wall Street gets excited and the fundamental business measures go out the window. Then a huge brick gets thrown through the glass, and they scramble as soon as they united. Nobody says, ‘Wait a minute, this really is a big thing, but, we’re not going to make money next Thursday, we’re going to make money in 2006. It might not be the first model, but there is something here, let’s explore it’.

I think people like Barry Diller really get it. He’s proving the web can make a lot of money. Let’s not forget that Yahoo! was given up for dead. It was the biggest thing in the world, then everyone ran like it was the Chicago fire saying ‘I’m gettin’ outta Yahoo!.’ Then, two entertainment guys came in and they figured it out. They made Yahoo! a really important business.

And for a second, the entertainment industry thought ‘its all about the web, forget regular TV, it’s all interactivity!’ That’s not quite true either. I don’t watch ‘The OC’ so I can write the ending. I need to hate the ending or love the ending as it plays out. I need that surprise.

The web becomes a compliment. We see an entire generation of kids doing everything online. You start to hear things like ‘did you hear about that short movie that someone posted online? Did you hear about this funny gag [on the web]?’. So rather than avoid it or dispute it, I say join in and figure it out with them.

Harbus: What is your vision for the evolution of FUSE, of television and teen entertainment as a whole-across TV, movies, music, videos games- in the coming years?

MJ: We really do believe that entertainment is an intersection: of TV, of your phone, of your computer, of IM, of video games. For us, convergence is not a stitched-on chat room to make some entertainment Frankenstein. It’s about discovering the two-way traffic that viewers take part in. That’s why I think we’re on to something very big, and in a very short time we’ve moved so quickly.

The kids are more media savvy than the people programming the networks. I’m constantly asking ‘what are they doing? How do we make something of it?’. We like to give our viewers a lot of influence, to enable and empower them to decide what we put on the air. The net allows that. The net democratized entertainment, we’re just trying to harness that power. We want to say that there aren’t six of us sitting in a room at 11 Penn Plaza picking your music, you’re picking your music. If you don’t like it, get online.

Harbus: Do you have any advice for MBAs looking to pursue careers in media and entertainment?

MJ: I started in one field, which was a field I thought was the respectable, smart field to be in. But I didn’t love it. I think I had a headache for seven months [laughs]. It sounded good, and it paid well, and it had everything that I should have liked. But I didn’t.

I decided to do what I loved. And I think everyone who really does what they love eventually succeeds because they really want to, not because they have to.

There is not a day that I don’t love coming to work. And when I stop loving it, I’ll find a new job. That fuels so much, because if you really love it, you’re probably good at it.