Tom Freston: America's Place in the World

Tom Freston was one of MTV's founding executives and until recently served as CEO of Viacom. Freston is responsible for the generation-defining ad campaign "I Want My MTV." In 1987 he became the CEO of MTV Networks, using his position to advance the networks' position in new markets, as well as launching several ancillary product lines and tie-ins, including "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "The Real World," "Beavis and Butthead," "South Park" and "SpongeBob Square Pants." From 2004, Freston led Viacom, overseeing all cable network properties (MTV Networks and Showtime Networks), the motion picture businesses of Paramount Pictures, and the publishing operations of Simon & Schuster. He resigned in September 2006. Freston was educated at New York University and is currently on the Board of Trustees for Emerson College in Boston. Ideas recorded on: 11/5/07
  • Transcript


Question: What forces that have shaped America most?

Tom Freston: Well I travel quite a bit, and I have for many years, so I’m always aware of . . . I can remember traveling around when I was basically a kid when the Vietnam War was going on, and witnessed firsthand anti-Americanism. And I always thought you know it’s interesting to be able to stand in someone else’s shoes and look at yourself and develop some sort of pattern or ability to empathy . . . empathy or observation and try and see the world through someone else’s prism. And today 30 or 40 years later, you have this increasingly interconnected world that has problems more acute than ever before. And I think that America has been judged . . . If I travel around now, anyone who travels around now feels this. I mean the view about America – and all surveys would reinforce this – is as low as it’s ever been. I mean it’s seen almost as an imperial nation. It’s a nation that, you know, consumes 25 percent of the world’s resources, where six percent of the world’s population acts unilaterally. It’s seen by others as unfairly invading other countries and seeking its will for its own material purposes. Now not all of this is necessarily true, but that’s the perception that’s out there. And I just think that, you know, when . . . We’re a country with a global ambition, and when you have people out there who feel that way about you, they can throw a lot of sand sort of in the gears of what you need to do to go about doing business. For example if you’re a business man, or to go about diplomacy if you’re a diplomat. And you know it’s gonna take a while for us to get back to some higher ground. And I wonder how long will it be before people in other countries put up pictures of the President of the United States in their house like they used to, say, in Ireland or Germany when JFK was president. You know we seemed to have slipped quite a bit from that. And complicated issue I know, but that’s just a fact.

Recorded On: 7/6/07