Cover Story: Can MTV Get Its Groove Back?

Being a beacon of everything cool to young people everywhere just ain't as easy as it used to be.

MTV, which for years set the pace as the television network that often dictated pop culture, today has competition as a trendsetter for young America from players no one even dreamed about back when “Video Killed the Radio Star” first aired in 1981.

And Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman has made no secret of MTV's ratings struggles over the past few quarters, citing increased competition from other networks in the target demos and a struggle to get viewers to tune into repeats. And those ratings were down 21% in key youth demos in the fourth quarter just as ad dollars began falling for television networks across the board.

But while some have claimed MTV let the Internet-crazed world pass it by, Viacom's iconic flagship cable channel isn't standing still. The network is embarking on a radical shift in programming strategy, one that execs hope will broaden its demographic reach and return MTV to its glory days as a ratings leader and trendsetting force. And early returns look promising.

“[MTV] was a killer brand at one point, there is no doubt, but there is no question it is something short of that now,” says Frank N. Magid Associates Executive VP Jack MacKenzie. “[But] with some smart, strategic thinking, it has the potential to become what it once was.”

Ramping up originals

Leading the network through the changes is Stephen Friedman, the former mtvU general manager promoted to head up the flagship in November. He effectively replaced Christina Norman, who left the network last February and has since resurfaced at The Oprah Winfrey Network. Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music/Logo/Film Group, had been filling in after Norman's departure.

Friedman and the MTV team are embarking on a two-pronged strategy to turn around MTVN's flagship network. The first, outlined by Dauman to investors, is to dramatically increase the amount of original programming and to enter new time periods. To that end, the network says it plans to launch 16 new unscripted series, as well as some scripted and animated programming in the first few months of 2009.

“To combat the decline in repeats, [caused by] DVR usage because our audience is such early adapters, we are increasing volume in a big way,” says Tony DiSanto, executive VP of series development and programming for the network. “We are bursting at the seams.”

Among the new shows are character-driven programs, including a talk show hosted by rapper Snoop Dogg; unscripted series such as College Life, shot entirely by students at the University of Wisconsin; and meta-scripted series in the vein of The Hills and its spinoff The City.

Also in development are some animated shows and scripted fare, a genre absent from the network since the underwhelming 2007 launch of its last major scripted series Kaya.

“There are so many people in the reality game, unless you can reinvent and turn the genre upside down, it is hard to own that space,” DiSanto says. “So you have to go to the next level, which is scripted or meta-scripted but with an MTV twist.”

Where the boys aren't

The second prong in MTV's overhaul is focusing on underserved target demos. To achieve that, MTV executives are programming the new shows in time slots that had been light on original programming, including Sunday evenings and weekday-afternoon blocks of shows.

One of the problems, at least to advertisers, was a subtle (and unintentional) shift toward female demographics. MTV maintains that its target demo is simply young people, regardless of gender. While that may be true (MTV Networks has niche channels like Spike and VH1 to appeal to specific demos), many of the network's most notable hits in recent years have skewed female.

According to an audience composition analysis performed by advertising agency RPA covering September through December 2008, MTV was enormously successful in attracting young women. To be sure, the network drew more men than many of its counterparts, but not nearly as many as it did women. According to the analysis, females 12-34 comprised 48% of the MTV audience during that period. Males 12-34 made up just 22%.

To remedy the situation, the new Sunday night block, “See You Sunday,” features shows designed to appeal to young men. The programming, Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory, Nitro Circus, How's Your News? and The College Humor Show, were programmed together to create a destination for guys. “[We decided] if we focused on a few blocks, we could get a much higher density of young guys,” Friedman says.

The new 4-6 p.m. weekday afternoon block targets teens returning home from school. In a throwback to Total Request Live, the long-running music video countdown show that taped its last episode in November, VJs will be hosting the block through interstitial segments.

“We saw a real opportunity to speak to teens in the afternoons; we had some family programming and a bunch of strips, and we felt they really worked well together,” DiSanto says. “We felt that to make it into a destination would be fantastic.”

The afternoon block launched Feb. 16. It features revamped current programs like Room Raiders 2.0, which shows people searching the bedrooms of potential dates, and Parental Control, which lets parents help choose whom their sons or daughters will date.

And while MTV was once known for breakthrough programming, it may now become a first-mover on scheduling. The network may experiment with program length (for instance, scheduling in 15- or 20-minute increments as opposed to the traditional half- and full hours), as well as the number and length of commercial pods per hour.

Getting some traction

The early results of MTV's new scheduling strategy look promising. The debut of “See You Sunday” Feb. 8 was up 137% from the same period in 2008, when the network programmed Real World/Road Rules Gauntlet and Making the Band 4. In particular, Rob Dyrdek's Fantasy Factory and Nitro Circus posted the network's best premiere numbers among male teens since 2003. The two were also the top shows on cable for the night in the demo.

Advertisers are on board with the new lineup as well. “I think they're trying to take more of a rifle-shot approach with a block of programs as opposed to a shotgun approach where they sprinkle it across the schedule,” says Shelley Watson, senior VP and director of entertainment at RPA, which counts automaker Honda among its clients. “It is encouraging to see growth on Sunday for young males because it gives us another destination [to target young men].”

Ratings are still weak when compared to the network's golden era in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the tide may be starting to turn. In addition to the strong debut of “See You Sunday,” weeknight ratings are on the rise as well, boosted by the latest installment of The Real World, a new season of America's Best Dance Crew and a strong launch for Run's House spinoff Daddy's Girls.

“The new lineup is beginning to deliver sequential improvement, with ratings quarter-to-date down 12% year-over-year compared with the decline of 21% in the fourth quarter,” Dauman said on the company's fourth-quarter earnings call Feb. 12.

Beyond the network, the MTV brand still resonates with the target demos. Vitrue, a company that researches social media marketing, named MTV as one of its top 10 social brands for 2008. Friedman and MTVN are hoping to capitalize on that brand awareness and the aggressive programming push to bring the network back.

“I think when I got here, we were already embarking on this generational shift,” Friedman says. “We have to shed our skins every couple of years as the audience changes.”

And as a name that has persevered this long, MTV has amassed a good amount of brand equity and the implied goodwill that brings. “I do believe [MTV's challenges] has to do with their cyclical nature,” says Larry Novenstern, executive VP and managing director at Optimedia. “They seem to reinvent themselves and come back stronger; it's nothing I'm too worried about.”

Nevertheless, the bar is high. MTV, as the largest and most high-profile brand in the MTV Networks portfolio, carries the burden and the benefit of worldwide recognition with it. As a result, when the network struggles, intense scrutiny is sure to follow.

“I think it is the name on the door,” Friedman says. “Because we were the first born, we are the canary in the coal mine.”

With Claire Atkinson