Power Sixer: Meet Judy McGrath, Astronauts Wanted’s Lead Explorer

Astronauts Wanted founder and president Judy McGrath accomplished a lot in her previous gig at MTV. She’s proud of the big moments, shaking up the electorate with the “Rock the Vote” campaign and helping Gen X turn a camera on itself in the groundbreaking reality series “The Real World.” But, at the same time, those ’90s landmarks represent the channel’s growing maturity and respectability, when it trimmed its hair, put on its best suit and started to go out on job interviews.

Her favorite times at MTV were the early days working on promotions in the ’80s, when it was young, fast, free and, as she likes to say, “illegitimate.” Someone in the writers’ room would mutter, “I hate my miserable life,” and they would turn it into a contest (below). So what if had never been done before. Boom. The winner got a one-way ticket to anywhere in the continental U.S., a job, a place to live, a car and $10,000.

“That was my first, truest, most best love,” says McGrath, who started with MTV as a copywriter in 1981, when it was a scrappy new cable channel that wasn’t even broadcast in its home base of New York City, and finished in 2011 as the CEO of Viacom’s MTV Networks, overseeing VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and TV Land, as well as MTV. “It was give a bunch people a camera — you couldn’t give it to everybody then — and let’s find some new voices and let’s have some fun, and create value for a brand while we’re at it.”

That’s the vibe McGrath is recreating at Astronauts Wanted, which she launched in partnership with Sony Music Entertainment in 2013. Billed as a “next generation content studio,” it puts top digital influencers into (mostly) short-form projects targeting Gen Z and millennial viewers.

All Astronauts Wanted shows — which include the travel series “HeyUSA,” starring Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart, and its spin-off “HeyUSAx,” the talkers “Girl on Girl” and “Tawk,” and the reality challenge show “ANXT” — are designed to be sharable across a multitude of social platforms and mobile-friendly.

On projects such as “@SummerBreak” and “SnapperHero” — produced in partnership with The Chernin Group, Fullscreen and sponsor AT&T — Astronauts Wanted has taken it a step further, using social platforms (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, etc.) not as mere distribution outlets, but as vehicles to craft “transmedia” stories that expand the dramatic universe of the shows with tweets, photos, video clips and other social media posts by characters, as well as contributions from fans.

McGrath sees digital platforms incubating a new visual aesthetic that could seep into other media the way the rapid-fire cutting and wild angles of MTV music videos influenced TV, movies and advertising in the 1980s.

“[Some of] these platforms were maybe originally designed for merely communication or something like that, but I think there’s a whole visual landscape emerging,” McGrath says. “You see Snapchat ads, you look at Instagram. There’s an almost beautiful visual art that exists here. I feel like rather than merely using language to communicate, people are now publishing their experiences, visually, all the time.”

“@SummerBreak” and “SnapperHero” used transmedia storytelling to explore the lives of California teens and the origins of superheroes, respectively. Now, McGrath is shopping a pilot for a show that puts a darker spin on the concept, “Socio,” produced in partnership with Canvas Media Studios.

Created by Canvas co-founder Bernie Su, “Socio” focuses on a 19-year-old tech savant and budding sociopath played by India Eisley (“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) who, in a “Dexter”-like twist, tracks down monstrous criminals with the help of a morally dubious police detective (Michael Copon, “Dystopia”).

“A lot of times, you get people who aren’t very sure of what to do,” says Su, a two-time Prime Time Emmy-winner (“The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” “Emma Approved”) who’s nominated for a Daytime Emmy this year for “Vanity” (StyleHaul). “Judy and Astronauts were very much, ‘You want to do this? Okay, let’s do it.’ I love the clarity.”

Although Astronauts Wanted has been largely focused on short-form content, it recently went long with the 80-minute Lilly Singh tour documentary “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” which premiered on YouTube Red in February.

“I think if the talent and the story and the transmedia component lend themselves to a long story, then we should be doing that,” McGrath says. “We would absolutely love to land something on one of those premium SVODs. One of the things I like about the lane we’re in is that you can make more bets and it doesn’t have to be a $100 million tentpole idea, but I do think one of those is going to come out of this space eventually.”

The bottom line is, “whatever it is you thought was true a couple weeks ago, we have to make sure we’re not hanging on to it as everything is shifting around us and you’ve got to shift again and shift faster and shift better,” McGrath says.

It’s the ability to make those quick shifts that attracted McGrath to the digital video space in the first place.

“By the time I was leaving Viacom, I started to feel like I was sitting on a luxury cruise ship surrounded by speedboats,” McGrath says. “And I thought, I’ve always attracted to young people who discover and, in this case, create whatever’s coming next first. So I want to be on one of those speedboats, heading into the waves and the spray and the who-knows-what.”