SUNY Buffalo State grad Tom Calderone has played a pivotal role in nation’s pop industry

Tom Calderone says he was “defined” by Buffalo.
  • By Tim O'Shei
  • Updated 7:56 PM
    July 26, 2015

NEW YORK – About a half-dozen years ago, Harvey Weinstein dialed Tom Calderone. Weinstein, a mogul of screen and stage, had a tape he wanted Calderone to see. The video featured three women bound by two things: longtime friendship – and mobster loved ones.

“Can you please watch it?” Calderone recalls Weinstein asking. “It’s called ‘Mob Wives.’ It’s really great.”

Great television. That’s what Calderone, then the president of the cable network VH1, had built a career by recognizing. Almost instinctively, he could detect great television (and before that, great radio), even if the material wasn’t something he’d watch or listen to himself. He’s the guy who put Britney Spears’ midriff-baring, conservative-taunting “Baby One More Time” video on VH1’s sister network, MTV. He put the punk rock band Good Charlotte on an international stage. He became a reality TV kingmaker for musicians-turned-TV stars from rapper Flavor Flav to rocker Brett Michaels.

You may think it was late ’90s fangirls who decided the winner of the ultimate boy band battle – ’N Sync or Backstreet? – but no. It was Calderone, a clean-cut, bespectacled, alt-rock-loving 1986 graduate of SUNY Buffalo State who went on to become one of pop culture’s most influential gatekeepers.

Calderone’s decadelong tenure at VH1, which was preceded by seven years overseeing music at MTV, ended earlier this week. A day before he sent a goodbye email to his staff, The Buffalo News spent nearly an hour interviewing Calderone late Monday morning in his 20th floor corner office in parent company Viacom’s Times Square tower.

Calderone made no mention of his departure; it’s unclear whether he even knew it was imminent, and he couldn’t be reached afterward to comment on it. But this much is certain: In nearly two decades in Viacom’s Times Square tower, Calderone’s work became embedded in our ears, our eyes (go ahead, blame him along with Britney for every schoolgirl costume gone bad) and our psyche. If you’ve gotten a pop song stuck in your ear or become addicted to a guilty-pleasure reality show, Calderone directly or indirectly got into your head. As his star grew, his passion for Buffalo – and what he’s done for the city – strengthened with it.

‘I’m going to zag’

If you know Calderone well, it’s easy to forget he’s not actually from Buffalo. He grew up downstate and came to the city in the early 1980s as a communications major at Buffalo State. A former high school radio jock, Calderone joined the college station, WBNY. Other DJs were playing top 40 and classic rock tunes; Calderone and friends Gabe DiMaio and John Davis decided to start a punk rock show, spinning records by bands like the Talking Heads and The Clash. “Everybody’s zigging,” Calderone said, “I’m going to zag.”

WBNY started receiving letters from listeners applauding it for being the only station in town willing to play punk. As Calderone rose through the ranks at WBNY, he injected a free spirit across the programming slate. With fresh music and creative, sometimes edgy promotions, WBNY became a go-to station for young listeners, shaping the philosophy that has driven Calderone’s career, which started at WGR in Buffalo, then took him to radio jobs Washington, D.C., and New York, followed by MTV and VH1.

“To me, that was the lightning rod,” Calderone said. “Whatever you put out there, even if it’s not your badge of creativity or something you would personally consume, as long as you put it out there knowing an audience will like it, that connection will always stay there in a really concrete way. And the loyalty will be built from there too.”

Which explains how a guy whose roots are punk and alternative rock built himself into one of the most influential pop culture gatekeepers by greenlighting acts like Britney and Flav: You don’t have to love it for yourself. You have to love it for your audience.

The power of great TV

Though he looks stylishly youthful with his combed dark hair, red plaid button-down, blue denim and black shoes, Calderone is a touch above 50, which puts him a solid 20 years ahead (and the opposite gender) of VH1’s core audience: women ages 28-35. The same dynamic existed when Calderone was overseeing music at MTV. He was in his mid-30s; the network was (and is) cooking up programming for teens and 20-somethings.

But knowing your audience transcends your age and gender, and although VH1 (like virtually every cable network in a media landscape with hundreds of channel choices and thousands of mobile options) has taken ratings hits, Calderone’s track record is solid. A current example: As he leaves VH1, the network’s Monday prime-time lineup of reality shows “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta” and “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle” dominate the cable ratings for that evening outside of sports, and are especially strong with women 18-49, a key demographic for advertisers.

For Calderone, any success – whether it’s shows like those that capture an African American audience, or years ago, recognizing the sex appeal of the punk rock bank Good Charlotte and putting them on MTV – boils down to a phrase he drops often into conversation: “It’s great TV.”

He uses those words when talking about one of the young artists he came across in his early days at MTV: a timid, 15-year-old, blond-haired girl named Britney Spears. Recently signed to Jive Records and about to release her first album, Britney was visiting MTV’s office to audition for the network’s executives. The hope was to convince MTV’s brass to put Britney’s videos on rotation and land her some spots on shows, including the weekday show “Total Request Live,” hosted by Carson Daly.

But Britney was so shy that instead of performing for all the executives in one room, she went from office to office, quietly walking in, singing a cappella, saying thank you and walking out. When Calderone met her, he was impressed by her vocals – “Wow, she did have a good voice at the time,” he said – but was curious about her shyness. How would she hold up on TRL next to the personable, playful Daly?

Calderone decided to keep an eye on this Britney Spears girl. Then, four months later, a tape arrived: It was the video for her first single, “… Baby One More Time.” With some other MTV officials, Calderone watched the video, which depicts Britney bored in school, waiting for the bell to ring. When class lets out, Britney and friends turn the hallway and parking lot into a massive dance party. With her schoolgirl shirt unbuttoned at the top and tied at bottom to reveal a sports bra and several inches of stomach, the video would whip conservatives and parent groups into a frenzy. But teens would love it, and for MTV, that’s great TV.

“We’re all sitting in the room saying, ‘Is that the same girl?’ ” Calderone recalled. “The minute you saw that video” – he claps a single time – “done. Done, done. Hit.” Sitting with one leg tucked under the other in an upholstered chair, a Buffalo Bills fabric dartboard hanging on the lamp to his left, Calderone nods his head.

“Done.”

Pop culture kingmaker

Had Calderone made a different decision on Britney, would we still know her? Likely yes, but our first impression may have been a different one. For all of the 17 years he spent at Viacom, Calderone’s decisions have made some people famous, and other people famous once again.

During his MTV years, he had to decide which of the big two boy bands – Backstreet Boys or ’N Sync – would get better play on weekend specials and awards shows. Though Backstreet was often regarded slightly higher, Calderone said, “We usually leaned a little more toward ’N Sync just because they popped better on TV at that time.”

That theory played out: Backstreet – as the group with more depth – still exists today. ’N Sync is long gone. But ’N Sync had Justin Timberlake, who went on to become one of the most successful entertainers on the planet, and whom Calderone came to know well. “You knew Justin was going to be the star,” Calderone said. “Justin did a really good job in asking a lot of questions about how we produce things, and how they’re going to be seen, and you really got a sense to know that this guy knew what was going on.”

The job Calderone held was a heady one, knowing his decisions could make or restart careers. Ten years ago, when ABC’s “The Bachelor” was hitting its height of popularity and VH1 wanted to riff on the concept of romance and reality TV, he wrestled with the idea of putting the colorful, clock-wearing rapper Flavor Flav on TV. Calderone and team decided to do it, knowing it was a risk – and “Flavor of Love” became a hit, putting its star back in the spotlight.

A year later, Calderone found it easier to do the same with Poison lead singer Bret Michaels for “Rock of Love.” Why? Flav’s success was one reason, but Michaels delivered another. “This guy feels like somebody that is great television,” Calderone said, “plain and simple.”

Buffalo completed him

In the television world, Calderone is a VIP – a dynamic that’s unlikely to change as he leaves Viacom. Though there’s no word on what he plans to do next, his track record will likely spur plenty of offers or entrepreneurial opportunities.

But years ago, Calderone realized the important of balancing his high-powered New York City executive life with something more normal. Something like Buffalo. His office, which is presumably now packed, was decorated with concert posters from Buffalo – next to a framed personal letter from Nelson Mandela – along with a Bills mousepad, Pegula T-shirt, and an Adirondack-style chair painted with the Bills logo.

On a regular basis, Calderone would use his time off, and his weekends, to visit Buffalo, often with his three young sons (ages 13, 11 and 9). “I like being invisible up there,” he said. “I really do.”

Eleven years ago, Calderone bought Bills season tickets. Nine years ago, he purchased an apartment in Buffalo. A member of two local halls of fame – broadcasting and music – Calderone is closely tied to the community. He was in town this week with his sons; as a family, they participated in the Food Bank of Western New York’s Walk Off Hunger event.

During Thanksgiving week after the November storm last year, Calderone headed to Buffalo to help. For a couple of days, he drove around with Food Bank executive Mike Billoni and Billoni’s wife, Debbie, helping with food drives run by the Bills and Sabres, as well as 97 Rock deejay Dave “Jickster” Gick. Calderone also served food in a soup kitchen and made a donation to the Food Bank that, in Billoni’s words, “bought a lot of turkeys.”

“It’s not about my business card, it really isn’t,” Calderone said. “It’s important to me while I’m there to give back to the city that defined me. I wasn’t a complete person till there.”

‘We were smitten’

Harvey Weinstein is a Western New York guy too (he attended the University at Buffalo), so maybe that helped a bit when he called Calderone some six years ago about that “Mob Wives” tape. (Or in fairness, maybe Weinstein’s record as one of the most successful producers in showbiz ruled the day.) But in any case, Calderone wasn’t sold when he watched the video. It was a follow-around of three women – Renee Graziano, Drita D’Avanzo and Karen Gravano – and Calderone just couldn’t discern the appeal.

He called Weinstein to say no thanks, but the producer asked Calderone to meet with the women anyway. “For you, absolutely,” Calderone said.

On the day of the meeting, Calderone told his assistant to pull him out of VH1’s glass-windowed conference room at exactly 31 minutes. “I don’t think that is something we would do,” he said.

As the group piled into the room – Calderone at the head of the rectangular table, Weinstein to his right, Calderone’s boss and then-MTV honcho Van Toffler to his left, and the women at the end – the mood shifted within minutes. The women were noisy, personable, warm, edgy. “They were friends since they were young and they traveled this amazing journey,” Calderone said. “Yeah they’re loud and they’re all different, but they were friends, and you can’t manufacture that. You can’t.”

At 31 minutes, Calderone’s assistant was standing in the window. He waved her away. “Two hours and 45 minutes later, we were smitten,” he said. Why? The same answer as for any of Calderone’s successes in the job he’s departing: His instinct told him that “Mob Wives” – now filming its sixth season – was going to be great TV. And he was right.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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