The media landscape has changed a lot since America first
got its MTV 18 years ago.
In 1981, when MTV: Music Television launched, there was no Internet luring teens to
And it also didn't face the likes of The WB Television Network, the Fox broadcasting
network, United Paramount Network, Comedy Central and FX competing for its young viewers.
But teens still want their MTV.
During the past two years, under a new programming maestro, MTV has dramatically
revamped its schedule in a bid to revitalize the channel. It had been stuck in a ratings
slump and had lost its connection to its fickle young audience -- a demographic prized by
The new strategy has worked spectacularly, according to the numbers. Today, despite the
increasingly fragmented universe that MTV competes in, more viewers than ever are watching
MTV's total-day ratings for both households and its target audience -- 12- to
34-year-olds -- are each up 40 percent from two years ago, before the programming
overhaul. This summer, MTV's primetime household ratings were up 22 percent from a year
ago, to a 1.1.
"My worst nightmare was that we would be pegged as an '80s idea," MTV
president Judy McGrath said. "We had gotten kind of comfortable. Our VJs felt a
little stale. So we threw out the old cornerstones of who we were ... I feel better than
ever that the balance is good and the content is right now."
This week, MTV's annual signature event, the Video Music Awards, will be held at a new
grand venue -- the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The show earned its highest
rating ever last year, an 8.2, and officials have high hopes for this year.
Not everyone likes the changes at MTV, which hinge on shows that creatively package and
showcase videos, as well as new long-form series, like Celebrity Deathmatch, and live
shows that try to reach out and connect with the audience again.
Detractors continue to carp that MTV is not a music channel anymore. Some claim that
The WB, and even VH1, have created more buzz of late with their programming.
Other critics maintain that MTV isn't hip anymore, and that it's gone too commercial by
playing the videos of popular groups like Backstreet Boys, rather than edgier, alternative
"Personally, I don't like it," TN Media Inc. director of national broadcast
Larry Blasius said. "But as a buyer, anything that improves their ratings, I've got
to feel good about."
Both McGrath and MTV executive vice president of programming Brian Graden, the
mastermind of the network's overhaul, stressed that while ratings are important, what's
just as -- or more -- important is what the "image indicators" show.
MTV wants to be perceived by its audience as trendsetting, with a strong brand that
will resonate across varied platforms, including the Internet.
"You want to be in the buzz business," McGrath said. "You want to have
that kind of impact on culture. We've spent 18 years trying to be the channel of the
moment. It's exhausting ... but we're slowly building our way back to buzz."
Roughly two years ago, with its ratings stalled, McGrath shook up MTV's programming
unit. Andy Schuon left, and Graden was promoted to his current position in December 1997.
His resume included stints at Foxlab and as executive producer of Comedy Central's hit
When Graden came in, he said, MTV was having "a creative-confidence crisis. There
had not been a recent successful connection with the audience. And the image tracking was
off, as well as the ratings."
Graden jump-started the development process, and within just a few months, he fired up
25 pilots. He said his initial goal was "to redefine what music television could be
and find different ways to celebrate videos."
To that end, shows such as Hot Zone, Beat Suite, MTV Newslink and Total Request Live --
the daily video-countdown show that's considered MTV's "unabashed flagship" --
were launched. Total Request Live debuted a year ago, and is televised from the
multimillion-dollar studio MTV built at its Time Square headquarters.
Hosted by genial ex-radio disc jockey Carson Daly, the show lets viewers pick the
videos they want to see, and it attracts hordes of youths outside of MTV's Broadway
McGrath and Graden touted the opening of the studio and Total Request Live as keystones
in MTV's ratings revitalization. "Total Request Live started everything we wanted to
be," Graden said. "It connected with the audience and gave them what they wanted
Total Request Live is now averaging a 1.3 rating, up 115 percent since the show's
fall-1998 debut. All in all, Graden has put roughly two-dozen new shows on the air at MTV
during his tenure, with only two cancelled since then.
"Brian really wanted to create long-form shows that have a music
sensibility," McGrath said.
In addition to Total Request Live, shows such as FANatic, which allows a fan to
interview their favorite celebrity, also strive to literally draw viewers into the
This year, supported by a production budget that is up 50 percent from 1997, Graden
said his new series are "about attitude" -- series such as the controversial The
Tom Green Show, scripted late-night strip Undressed and animated show Downtown.
Undressed -- described as "one part soap, one part anthology" -- has been
averaging a strong 1.4 rating at 11 p.m.
For total day, in the third quarter of 1997, MTV's ratings were a 0.5 for both
households and 12- to 34-year-olds, according to Nielsen Media Research. They rose to a
0.6 in 1998 and a 0.7 in 1999 for both demographics -- an increase of 40 percent from 1997
to 1999. "The ratings are higher than ever before," Graden said.
Paul Kagan Associates Inc. projected that MTV will generate $598.6 million in revenue
this year and $671.8 million next year, when the network has new challenges on the drawing
The network unveiled its first slate of original movies this summer; the first is set
to air this winter. And McGrath noted that the network "still hasn't cracked a
But cable operators seem happy with MTV's results so far.
"VH1 has successfully gone back to its roots, and MTV has done the same
thing," Prime Cable corporate director of programming Pam Burton said. "The
changes are fabulous. They really worked."
TV Guide critic Matt Roush likes most of the changes he has seen at MTV.
"Graden found a way to revitalize a brand that had been seen as mature,"
Roush said "They had been afraid of seeming like your older brother's MTV. They're
getting back to exactly what the viewer wants. And they have created some new stars, like
Roush pointed out that seven-year-old Real World -- which chronicled the travails of
alcoholic Ruthie this year -- has been revitalized. It's averaging a 3.8 household rating
and a 4.5 for 12- to 34-year-olds.
And MTV's new interactive Internet game show, webRIOT, provided the most exciting
presentation at the Television Critics Association tour in July, according to Roush.
But he's got some gripes. Roush plans to put Tom Green on his worst-shows-of-the-year
list, and he thinks VH1, MTV's sister channel, may have outdone it in some ways.
"In its glory days, MTV drove the culture," Roush said. "VH1 has
one-upped it just a bit. VH1's Behind the Music is parodied on Saturday Night Live. But
MTV is no slouch."
MTV is the No. 1 cable network for 12- to 34-year-olds and 12- to 24-year-olds. But
Madison Avenue is quick to point out that the network has tough competition today for its
As Blasius noted: "In its original incarnation, MTV was meant to be a music
channel. It's now just a youth cultural vehicle. The WB has come along and almost replaced
it. It used to be 'I've got to have my MTV,' and now, it's almost, 'I've got to have my
McGrath is the first to agree that there's a lot of competition for MTV's audience. But
she said what MTV does in terms of programming is very different than her rivals.
"We're not The WB," she said. "I'm not interested in doing a cheaper
version of Dawson's Creek. That would be a disaster for us. The audience has a clear
picture of what fits MTV and what fits The WB."
McGrath and Graden also insist that MTV is giving music videos more airplay than ever,
despite complaints to the contrary. "Percentagewise, we are playing more
videos," McGrath said, "but it's a hard perception to change."
Graden thinks the complaints are "generational," made by baby boomers who
"have a notion of what MTV was in 1986."
Younger viewers -- MTV's audience -- know that if they want to see videos, they can
tune to shows such as Total Request Live. "Our audience knows how to use us,"
McGrath doesn't seemed surprised by the beefs made about the channel. "When you
change your positioning, there are some risks," she said. "We have incurred
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