NEW YORK (AP) ― Over the years, one of the last things a viewer would on the youth-obsessed MTV was a parent.
Now moms and dads are not unusual sights, even on the twin totems to wild behavior and its consequences “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom,” which are key to the network’s latest resurgence. Many young viewers targeted by MTV have no problem with parents being an active part of their lives, even during rebellious years, and expect their presence on television.
Understanding such generational nuances is crucial to MTV, which has the brutal imperative of reinventing itself every five or six years to appeal to a new group of 12- to 24-year-olds. Their viewers eventually grow up. MTV never can.
The latest reinvention has MTV with its best ratings in five years. The third season of “Jersey Shore” was the network’s top-rated show ever, and the second season of “Teen Mom” similarly zoomed up the charts. The challenge now is figuring out how to build on that success and know when to be ready for the next reinvention.
So far this year MTV has steered in a surprisingly traditional direction.
MTV debuts a remake of the “Teen Wolf” series on June 5, brings back “Beavis and Butt-head” later this year, has its own weight-loss series for teens and two “Jersey Shore” spinoffs in the works. Among recycled ideas, spinoffs and a new focus on establishing scripted series, MTV’s approach feels more like a typical broadcast network than ever before.
MTV viewers “want more from us,” said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music/Films/Logo Group. “They expect more from us.”
Toffler, who has been with MTV since 1986, and newly appointed network president Stephen Friedman, at MTV since 1998, have survived its ups and downs over the years. The latest cycle began with the expiration of “Laguna Beach” and “The Hills.”
After a reasonably successful first season of the reality competition series “Paris Hilton’s Best Friend,” the second season proved disastrous.
“The audience checked out,” Friedman said. “You saw them not believing it. We found out they wanted something more honest. The manufactured reality felt phony to them.”
After all, how many BFFs can you really have, even if you’re Paris?
A couple of years ago MTV Networks acquired rights to a short reality series, “World’s Strictest Parents,” and it was put on the CMT network. MTV decided to run a few episodes, too, and was surprised at how many people watched. At the same time, MTV’s head of reality programming had seen statistics about a rise in teen pregnancies and the series “16 and Pregnant” was born in spring 2009.
“Jersey Shore” began in a completely different form, as a pilot of a competition series for VH1. It was retooled into what now exists and MTV knew just by the way people were talking about promotions for the new series that it had a potential hit.
“When you get a little bit scared,” Toffler said, “you know something might work.”
“Real World,” a series that has been on MTV for two decades and had grown a little tired, suddenly found its feet again commercially and creatively. A Washington-based season proved stale, and moving to Las Vegas for another edition increased the personal drama and fun. (Season 12 of the series, in 2002, also took place in Las Vegas and was one of the show’s highest-rated seasons.)
MTV viewers are interested in the rites of passage, such as young people moving into their first apartments and getting jobs in “Real World,” that are relatable yet more entertaining than their own lives, Friedman said. “We’re looking for the lives of our audience amplified,” he said.
“They did a really good job of doing a lot of research on their consumers and figuring out what is resonating with them,” said Maureen Bosetti, an executive vice president at Optimedia, a unit of ZenithOptimedia, an ad-buying and research firm. “I think it shows in the programming, and that’s why they have hits like ‘Jersey Shore.’”
Another key moment for MTV was the Video Music Awards incident in 2009 when Kanye West questioned Taylor Swift’s award-worthiness onstage, an episode that exploded through social media. Toffler said MTV had been grappling with how to deal with social media, and came to see it through West’s outburst as a means rather than an end: Social media can be a boon to the company if it has the content people want to talk about.
Blessed with success, MTV is looking to spread the “Jersey Shore” franchise with two spinoffs. In one, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Jenni “J-Woww” Farley buy a new house together; the other focuses on what disc jockey Paul “DJ Pauly D” DelVecchio’s life is like. Neither project has air dates yet.
For MTV and other networks, taking advantage of a huge success in this manner is like holding your hand close to a fire. You can be warmed or burned, and it can all happen very fast.
“They’ve seen these ups and downs throughout their history: these big highs, and then it all comes crashing down,” Bosetti said. “You don’t want to overexpose anything and you don’t want to have too much of a good thing, because it will burn out.”
That explains the breadth of programming under development at MTV, with scripted series the biggest step. “Teen Wolf” remakes the old Michael J. Fox movie at a time vampires and other supernatural creatures are popular. “Awkward,” due in July, is about a high school girl who is not noticed until an accident leaves her in a body cast. MTV has not said whether it will move forward with the sexually frank series “Skins,” which attracted considerable attention last winter.
MTV has aired the reality series “I Used to Be Fat” and has “Ridiculousness,” a show that runs through funny online videos, in the works. The network also is developing a new generation musical countdown show aimed at helping viewers come to grips with the breadth of music online.
Toffler said he also is interested in a show that would explore the young generation’s curiosity about faith and religion, as well as a program about integrating into the work force. It all must be tooled to a generation that thinks it is easier to start a company than to send out resumes, go on interviews and try to work for someone else, he said.
Even with programming forms similar to many other networks, MTV must speak to the life passages that happen quickly for its young viewers, Friedman said.
“One of the things the audience said to us was, ‘You have to be pioneers and take risks,’” he said.