"We needed a total reinvention, a complete overhaul," Stephen Friedman, MTV's president, recalled.
The audience had shifted: The younger portion of the network's 12-to-34-year-old target audience (those who make up the millennial generation, born after 1980) exhibited different tastes and sensibilities from the post-baby boom Generation X.
MTV had failed to adapt, Friedman believed, because it hadn't done its homework. So he recruited an unlikely tutor: Nick Shore, a lanky Brit who had built a business with such offbeat assignments as probing the psychology of pain and figuring out the essence of Princess Diana.
A mirror of American youth culture for three decades, MTV has to recalibrate regularly. From round-the-clock music videos, to reality TV pioneer The Real World, to the heh-heh-heh of Beavis and Butt-head, and the gotcha of Punk'd, MTV continually pulls from its grab bag, most recently making headlines with Jersey Shore and Teen Mom.
Now the chameleon network is at it again, launching a slate of scripted shows beginning with Awkward, its latest hit, a smart, sweet half-hour comedy that would not have stumbled onto MTV's schedule three years ago. Early signs are good, as prime-time ratings have climbed by 50 percent from two years ago.
"This was a real opportunity to transform MTV once again," Friedman said. "But we needed to let go of Generation X so we could own the millennials."
The retooling czar
On a drizzly Friday in spring, the Providence restaurant in Manhattan was jammed with twenty- and thirtysomething MTV programming executives, casting agents, researchers, and producers, brought together for "M-Day," Millennial Day. It was a social research field trip for the staff, created by Shore, who joined MTV in November 2009 to facilitate the network's programming transformation.
Shore, 45, got his start in London ad agencies and then spent 15 years as a marketing consultant in New York, with clients including Coca-Cola, Motorola, and Frito-Lay. He once interviewed a half-dozen dominatrixes to help Johnson & Johnson better understand the psychology of pain to market its pain relievers. For Coke, he was charged with defining the qualities of an icon. Lady Diana Spencer had it all: hair, vulnerability, and pithy nickname, "Princess Di."
Retooling "something so rich and juicy and iconic as MTV" presented the "ultimate branding challenge," said Shore, MTV's senior vice president, strategic insights and research.
Other TV networks, including ABC Family and CW, had been quicker to recognize the tastes of the millennial generation. Shows including ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager were clicking with young viewers in 2008 and 2009 as MTV's ratings were plunging. MTV faced turf incursions from all sides as the Internet, cellphones, and video games commanded more of young adults' time and focus.
Shore's strategy has been to bombard MTV executives with interesting nuggets of information. He and his 32-member staff lob research notes about millennials called "M-Bombs," and occasionally stage M-Days.
On this day, six young women from around the country were brought to New York to share their life stories with MTV. Each represented an archetype: the creator, expressing who she is; the seeker, searching for her place in the world; the lover, navigating relationships; the soloist, craving a sense of belonging; the magician, seeking personal power; and the master, striving for control in her life.
A radiant young woman with brown curls and an easy smile who lives in Seattle, labeled "the creator," explained that her parents, a white mother and black father, divorced when she was an infant. She had little contact with her father and was confused about her identity. Black friends told her she wasn't "black enough." But she found comfort watching The Cosby Show.
Another 23-year-old from Seattle talked about her troubled teen years and how foster parents locked her in an attic. A woman from Georgia explained how she struggled to square her life with the teachings of her church. Most striking about the speakers was their lack of inhibition.
Millennials were the first to grow up with the Internet, a powerful platform for expression, and they have no qualms about putting it all out for the world to see.
The goal of "M-Day" was to get a glimpse into the women's "strategies for dealing with life," said Stacey Matthias, co-chief executive of Insight Research, which selected the women for MTV.
"We want to understand our audience better to help us draw better characters," Shore said.
Keeping it real
"Life amplified" is MTV's current slogan. The network is in pursuit of stories that reveal and explore characters' vulnerabilities. Authenticity, Shore and others say, is a critical component.
"About the biggest put-down in the millennial world is to call someone fake," said Carol Phillips, president of Brand Amplitude, a Michigan consulting firm. "They want to see experiences that feel real."
"Millennials come from families that are more democratic and worlds spin around the kids," Shore said. "This has created kids who have a sense of power, a sense of voice, and kids who need to be listened to."
MTV already was overhauling its programming in 2009 when Shore came on board. That summer it had launched 16 and Pregnant and in December it added Teen Mom and Jersey Shore, two gritty reality shows that were a dramatic pivot from the sun-drenched escapism of The Hills. The series reversed MTV's ratings slide and landed the network back on the cultural map.
Now MTV is rolling out a new slate of shows, both scripted and reality, that hope to speak to millennials in their own language. While it fell short with Skins and The Hard Times of R.J. Berger, MTV scored with Awkward, which debuted in July. MTV's millennial mantra that "smart and funny is the new rock and roll" applies to the irreverent comedy. Awkward centers on 15-year-old Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), a witty nerd who is invisible at school until a freak accident, which everyone assumes is a suicide attempt (it wasn't), makes her suddenly notorious.
While writing the show, Awkward creator Lauren Iungerich, a member of Generation X, put together her own focus group at her former high school in Palos Verdes. She and her writing staff spent a day interviewing students.
The quest for genuine voices is seeping into new reality offerings, too. On Tuesday, MTV launches a documentary-styled program, Chelsea Settles. The show's 23-year-old heroine, Chelsea Settles, struggles with a tough decision: stay in small-town Pennsylvania with her seriously ill mother, or move to Los Angeles to work in the fashion industry.
Unlike the rail-thin blonds who populated MTV three years ago, Settles is black and weighs 324 pounds.
Two scripted shows scheduled for next year revolve around millennial themes. The Doug Liman-produced I Just Want My Pants Back is about a group of twentysomethings in Brooklyn navigating relationships, based on a novel by David J. Rosen. And MTV will introduce Underemployed, a comedic stab at one of the biggest challenges facing young adults: overcoming the weak economy.
The shift in strategy is paying dividends. The network just ended its seventh consecutive quarter of year-to-year ratings growth. According to the Nielsen Co., nearly 1.2 million people on average watched MTV during prime time in 2011. Awkward has had an average of 1.9 million viewers its first season, and the network says it is watched online (in full or clips) 1.4 million times a week.
"We want the audience to be our muse," said Shore. "When we get that right and become a reflection of our audience, then that's when MTV is at its best."