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How MTV Is Trying to Reinvent Itself to Combat Sinking Ratings and Disinterested Teens

MTV is trying to reinvent itself, as it has several times in the past.

mtv spaceman illo bb21 2015
Illustration by Kevin Davis

On a Tuesday evening in April, during MTV’s annual upfront presentation, the channel that introduced the world to Jackass and Snooki put something onscreen that shocked even a jaded audience of advertising executives: elves. Specifically, MTV showed a trailer for The Shannara Chronicles, its lavish TV adaptation of a series of swords-and-sorcery novels by Terry Brooks, which will premiere in January 2016. Filmed in New Zealand and filled with medieval costumes, Shannara looks more like the Lord of the Rings movies than anything on MTV, and it has the budget to match — it’s the most expensive series the channel has ever made, according to an executive.

MTV could stand a little witchcraft. This season, its primetime programming reached about 40 percent fewer viewers in the 12-to-34 target demo than it did five years ago, according to Nielsen. Perhaps more importantly, the channel lacks a breakout hit that defines its sensibility. Interest in the kind of irreverent reality shows that came to dominate MTV’s schedule is fading, and, at 23, The Real World is older than its target audience. “Big shows are once in a few years for any network,” says John Janedis, equity analyst at Jefferies. “It’s becoming harder to have smash hits.”

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Much of MTV’s ratings trouble comes from a general decline in watching live TV — overall viewership of ad-supported cable has dropped by about 10 percent, and channels that target younger demographics are down more. The channel’s most popular show, Teen Mom, gets almost 2 million 12-to-34 viewers a week, but that’s a third of what Jersey Shore did in its heyday. Its least popular shows, like Snack-Off, reach fewer than 400,000 in the same demographic. “You can get a bigger audience with an Instagram post than you can on some MTV shows,” says Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen, a planning and buying agency.

Now, MTV is trying to reinvent itself, as it has several times in the past. In February, Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music and Logo Group, declined to renew his contract and announced he was leaving to start a new company. MTV’s corporate parent, Viacom, combined MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Spike and Logo into the Viacom Music and Entertainment Group under Doug Herzog, 56, who previously ran the division that included Comedy Central and Spike. More than 200 staffers were laid off, including Dave Sirulnick, a respected veteran who ran MTV News. The channel faces more competition than ever, from cable outlets including ABC Family, online video startups such as AwesomenessTV and even youth-culture brands like Vice. Viacom’s stock has dropped more than 25 percent during the past year, and a recent Bloomberg Businessweek cover story trumpeted the company’s “Midlife Crisis.” Its future also involves complicated questions about who will succeed Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s executive chairman, who is now 92.

How MTV Is Trying to Reinvent

“It’s the perfect storm,” says a former MTV programming executive. “The audience is going digital, reality TV is running dry, there’s more competition for scripted programs. I feel for the executives there.”

For its first two decades, MTV built a business on music videos and a brand on teen rebellion. Even as the channel moved away from videos toward half-hour programs that drew steadier ratings, shows like Beavis and Butthead focused on loud music and raised middle fingers. Later, as videos became easier to find elsewhere, MTV entered its Silver Age — roughly from the late ’90s until a few years ago — leveraging its sensibility and relationships with rock stars (The Osbournes, Jessica Simpson) and camera-savvy brats (Jackass, The Hills) into shows that brilliantly turned excess, snark, voyeurism and narcissism into must-see TV. The channel became the darling of Madison Avenue, much as Vice is today.

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MTV was so influential that it arguably remade TV in its own image. Reality shows about oddballs sharing a house became a cliche, many dramas feature pop songs, and music programs such as Empire and Lip Sync Battle are commonplace. If its sensibility is so widespread, how does MTV define itself? What does it stand for?

MTV president Stephan Friedman, 45, believes part of the answer lies in serialized scripted series. “Because the world is dark and complicated, the audience wants complicated entertainment,” says Friedman from his spacious office, where one wall has three flatscreen TVs playing Viacom channels. It doesn’t hurt that serialized shows often have profitable second lives on Amazon and Netflix.

In late 2012, Friedman and Toffler hired as president of programming Susanne Daniels, 50, who oversaw such shows as Felicity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer at The WB (now The CW). So far at MTV, her record on scripted series is mixed: Daniels has a modest hit with Finding Carter, but another drama she green-lit, Eye Candy, was canceled after a year. Although Shannara may look like it could run on Syfy, showrunners Alfred Gough and Miles Millar made Superman’s teen years a hit with The CW’s Smallville, and Daniels says the show’s themes — of dealing with doubt and working together — will feel familiar to an MTV audience. “I want to do original, unique shows that reflect what the brand stands for,” says Daniels, just back from introducing Shannara at San Diego ComicCon. “There are 350 scripted series on the air, and in that world it’s a challenging thing to accomplish.”

MTV’s most exciting new shows don’t involve music, and the channel hasn’t played many videos for years. In 2010, it dropped “Music Television” from its logo. But Herzog is a music fan with history at the channel — he launched MTV News in the ’80s. And he appointed Erik Flannigan, who has a music background, to run digital operations at Viacom Music and Entertainment Group, plus supervise music. Friedman says MTV promotes acts like MisterWives, an alt-pop band whose “Vagabond” became the theme of Finding Carter — and who played at the channel’s upfront event. But a half-dozen label executives interviewed for this story stated the obvious: The channel doesn’t have near the promotional power it once did. “MTV can’t make a song a hit like it used to,” says blogger Perez Hilton. “But the Video Music Awards are still a relevant pop-culture event in the music world.”

How MTV Is Trying to Reinvent

MTV’s fortunes may be more tied to those of the broader cable TV industry, which has never had more relevance — although ratings are down from recent highs. For the past decade, as piracy threatened the music and movie industries, TV enjoyed a Golden Age, fueled by increasing cable fees as well as advertising. Now both of those revenue streams are under pressure: Online viewing poses a challenge to the cable subscription model, and ratings are plummeting. Even Comedy Central, on a hot streak with shows like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer, has had a ratings decline of 30 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with 2014 among its target demographic of 18 to 34-year-old men. However, many viewers are watching the same shows, just not on TV: Between 65 and 70 percent of the audience for MTV hits like Finding Carter watches them on DVR, on demand or online, which aren’t captured in same-day Nielsen ratings. “Audiences are still watching MTV,” says Friedman. “They’re just doing it on their phones and their laptops as well.”?

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Viacom executives have generally seen online viewing as a threat — one that hits the company especially hard because it depends more on adsupported cable than any other media conglomerate. There’s a reason they protect those cable fees, which amount to between 40 and 45 cents per subscriber per month for MTV alone: They generate much of the company’s considerable profit. Since 2011, Viacom’s operating margin has grown from 25.8 percent to 29.9 percent. But its past reluctance to put more programming online has helped create a divide between producers who want the biggest possible audience for their shows and “the 52nd floor” — of Viacom headquarters at 1515 Broadway in New York, where chairman/CEO Philippe Dauman and other top executives have offices. (Viacom has put a few of its shows on YouTube, which it sued for copyright infringement in a case that was settled in 2014.)

Although Redstone reportedly fired former Viacom chief executive Tom Freston in 2005 for failing to buy Myspace, the company hasn’t made many bold moves online, either, as Disney did when it bought Maker Studios. The main problem with MTV’s digital strategy wasn’t that executives didn’t have good ideas about how to take the company online, according to several former staffers — the company just didn’t stick with them. In 2006, MTV launched Urge, a Spotify-style music subscription service, then apparently decided it would take too long to reach profitability; it dropped from sight after being spun off into a separate company in 2010. MTV also set up an online video project with Vice Media in 2007, six years before 21st Century Fox bought 5 percent of the company for $70 million. “Viacom has been resistant to change,” says an independent producer who makes shows for MTV. “Now it’s paying the price.”

MTV’s future could depend on Daniels and the success of splashy series including Shannara. The channel opened its upfront presentation with a preview of Scream, a serialized reboot of the horror films that premiered June 30 to respectable but unexciting ratings. There was noticeably less enthusiasm for more traditional MTV fare like Follow the Rules, a reality show about Ja Rule and his family.

After the Shannara preview screened, MTV host Charlamagne Tha God joked to the upfront audience that “with a name like that, it should really be starring a black girl.” There’s a cultural gap there: If shows like Shannara succeed, how will they redefine the values of a channel that has always been known for its teen spirit? “The show looks absolutely spectacular,” says the former programming executive, who saw the trailer. “But we’re all wondering if it means the death of the brand.”

This story first appeared in the July 24 issue of Billboard.