Michael Armstrong has racked up more than 1 million frequent-flyer miles expanding Viacom's presence around the globe. His next challenge: building an international movie channel.
Never challenge Michael Armstrong to a game of Scrabble. When Armstrong, senior vice president and general manager of BET International and Paramount Channel, was 13, he was struck by a car while riding his bike. He needed five surgeries and spent the eighth grade in a wheelchair and the ninth on crutches, during which time he became an adept Scrabble player. "I learned patience," Armstrong said. "I hit the books. I learned how I could recover from something and come back stronger than ever. It was humbling. It shaped who I am."
The man he became took all of those qualities into the fast-changing landscape of media and entertainment and has risen quickly to the executive suite. After only four years in account management in the Chicago office of MTV Networks (now known as Viacom Media Networks and a division of Viacom Inc.), Armstrong moved to New York to become vice president of affiliate marketing. When Viacom's top brass decided in 2006 to relaunch the international business of BET Networks, they tapped Armstrong as senior vice president and general manager to build the BET brand overseas.
Soon he would accumulate more than 1 million frequent-flyer miles. By 2009, Armstrong had built BET's international reach to 14 million households in 54 countries. Two years later, Viacom International Media Networks recruited him to create a new international television channel, built around the library of Paramount Pictures, from the ground up - a huge opportunity for someone who then was not yet 40.
Too much to resist
Armstrong comes from an entertainment family and grew up in Aurora, Colorado. His mother Stacia worked for HBO and recently retired from the Hallmark Channel, and his sister Danielle is vice president of customer care and marketing for the Bright House Networks in Bakersfield, California. Armstrong wanted to find his own path, so he went to work for health care giant Baxter International, Inc., based in Deerfield, Illinois, in the company's dietary products division. In 1998, out with his sister one evening, they ran into an acquaintance from MTV Networks who mentioned an opening in the Chicago office. "It was too much for a 26-year-old to resist," he said in an interview from his office in Times Square.
Armstrong had four busy years in Chicago - he married, began the new job at Viacom, and enrolled at Booth. "Mike doesn't toil over decisions," according to his wife, Lori Hall Armstrong. "He doesn't hesitate, doesn't poll a bunch of people - he just does it."
At Booth, he sought a more sophisticated approach to analyzing problems, but he also found a pervasive emphasis on incentive thinking that complemented his natural talent for sales. "You have to understand what the other side is thinking," he said. "That plays into sales, plays into diplomacy, all the areas that drive business—how people take different views of what is essentially the same problem. Booth helps you understand the other person's filter."
Promoting local artists
At Viacom, Armstrong has had myriad problems to solve. How do you customize an advertising program across multiple platforms for Viacom's media networks and get a multinational to buy it? How do you take BET, a homegrown domestic media brand for the African American audience, into international markets? How do you make each country's version of BET relevant with local audiences when there are few resources? How do you make a global brand local too? How do you march into a country that has been happily watching TV without you and convince everyone - viewers, advertisers, distributors, and entertainers - that they need your programming? How do you turn a storied movie brand into a new experience for modern global audiences?
"He's not the kind of executive who's always complaining about not having enough resources," says Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET Networks, who hired Armstrong from what was then known as MTVN International.
To build BET in overseas markets, Armstrong sought out local artists who would benefit from television exposure - social media helped him find artists who already had a following. He created half-hour shows profiling black artists from the United Kingdom and across Africa. A selection of shows feature musicians, actors, icons, and dignitaries using relatively limited resources to reflect and elevate these figures to a broad, international audience.
"We continue to expand the ways for all BET viewers to share in the best black cultural talent worldwide," Armstrong said. To that end, he added the Best International Act category to the annual BET Awards, the network's showcase for black entertainers and sports figures. By creating complementary content to BET's biggest events, such as BET Awards, Sunday Best, and BET Honors, he and his team have discovered a unique way to highlight and celebrate artists from Africa and the United Kingdom. These local artists also have appeared on 106 & Park and the BET Awards preshow, have been profiled on BET.com and BET's apps, and have been featured on other international shows. This grass-roots strategy has enabled BET to build its brand abroad. "I'm advocating brands on behalf of an organization," Armstrong said. "You have to believe in those brands at your core. The customers are going to be able to tell whether you're being authentic. If you're not, you are going to be seen through immediately as just another suit trying to sell something."
Marketing the brand in an entirely new way is his challenge with the new international Paramount Channel. Viewers gain access to Paramount classics such as The Godfather, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Top Gun. But Armstrong wants to do more than just broadcast the studio's vast library of films. He wants anyone who sees the channel to feel as if they've been transported to the Paramount lot in Los Angeles and are a part of the movie-making experience. "It's great to be exposed to the content, and then see how the content is created," he said.
"BET and Paramount are fundamentally different," said Bob Bakish, president and CEO of Viacom International Media Networks. "BET stands for great entertainment made by and for the black community. We serve as a platform to expose people to these talents that they may not know. Michael has to create the Paramount Pictures network from scratch. This is a brand we're exporting to the rest of the world. He loves that."
The first Paramount Channel launched in Spain earlier this year and was the second most successful launch in the history of DTT (digital terrestrial television) in Spain, based on audience share and number of advertisers. Other markets are in the works. "There was an opportunity in Spain to expand our presence on DTT, the same platform where our MTV brand also was widely distributed," Armstrong said. "It aligned with our launch timing for the Paramount Channel brand and thus became our inaugural market."
None of this has gone to Armstrong's head. The humility he learned spending his early teenage years in a wheelchair stays with him. Lee said that Armstrong called her from Madrid the evening that Paramount Channel went live in Spain. "It must have been midnight there and he said, 'We're getting ready to flip the switch and I was thinking about when you hired me and how none of this would be happening if it weren't for you,'" Lee said. "That means a lot to me. But, then, that's just Mike." ■