I Want My (Web) MTV
Digital impresario Mika Salmi is transforming Viacom's MTV Networks into a new-
media powerhouse, saving it from a fate worse than death: middle age.
Johnnie L. Roberts
April 5, 2008
Mika Salmi's band of adrenaline-drunk buddies were all thinking the same thing: "Now what,
Mika?" On a thrill-seeking sojourn from MTV Networks—where he oversees the cable
programmer's sprawling digital realm—Salmi had escorted eight of his Silicon Valley
compatriots into the remote Canadian backcountry for some extreme skiing. While soaring off
a frighteningly steep slope, Salmi had lost one of his skis midair, and it disappeared into the
deep powder. Without the ski, how could he possibly guide them back to civilization? The
group worried as they fruitlessly searched for the equipment. But Salmi had been in scarier
predicaments before—alone, no less—on mountain treks and while surfing. He'd always
come through unscathed, and would again this day. "On one ski, he proceeded to ski about
eight kilometers [five miles] down the mountain—and better than any of us on two skis,"
recalls Richard Barton, a longtime Salmi friend and cofounder of Expedia.com. "He's a
tenacious guy who's always pushing the edge. He picks himself up and moves on and gets it
It's that flair for adventure and inventiveness that captured the attention of top executives of
Viacom's MTV Networks, who in 2006 tapped Salmi to become the company's Internet czar.
Worse than losing a ski in the snow, MTV Networks had lost its footing in the midst of a
paradigm shift in media and entertainment. The arrival of broadband video was changing the
nature of entertainment, but MTV Networks, which includes, among other channels, VH1,
Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and the flagship MTV outlet, had suddenly found itself lagging.
It was a humiliating predicament. MTV Networks, which for years had been the arbiter of
youth culture, seemed to be squandering its birthright: even as its core audience was
embracing the Internet as the next entertainment medium, MTV could not shake its old-media
image. But under the guidance of Salmi, 42, a Web video pioneer who got his start in the
1990s before most people knew what streaming media and digital downloads were, MTV
Networks is now beginning to take hefty bytes of the Internet business.
MTV and its sibling brands now have more than 300 sites, including some 30 media-rich
broadband sites that boast video, music and lots of interactivity. And they have captured an
impressive amount of traffic: Nickelodeon alone logged 1.4 billion video streams last year.
MTV Networks' Internet sites attracted 90 million unique visitors worldwide in December 2007,
up from 76 million the previous year, according to comScore. But the digital empire Salmi is
helping to expand and turbocharge goes way beyond streaming video. MTV is now a leading
creator of online virtual worlds like Neopets.com, where users' avatars can interact with virtual
pets, and Pimp My Ride (named after the popular MTV show), where avatars can customize