AT THE HELM: MTV president Stephen Friedman, left, enlisted the assistance… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York — — For MTV, the situation was more than awkward.
In fall 2008, the network was bingeing on manufactured reality shows that celebrated wealth and excess just as the country was staggering into a recession. Banks were failing, people were losing their jobs and college students were facing uncertain futures. But on MTV, the glamorous clique from "The Hills" was indulging in West Hollywood shopping trips and getaways to Cabo San Lucas. And on "My Super Sweet 16," the parents of a South Carolina beauty queen spent tens of thousands of dollars to give her the perfect birthday party, complete with a baby-blue Hummer.
"We needed a total reinvention, a complete overhaul," Stephen Friedman, MTV's president, recalled. At the network since 1998, Friedman has steered many of MTV's social and political causes over the years. He assumed day-to-day management of the youth-oriented cable channel just as the economy was sinking, and cracks in the network's program strategy were becoming glaringly apparent.
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 to keep pace with the zeitgeist. 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 programming 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 kicked off by "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% 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
The Providence restaurant in midtown Manhattan is dark and moody. Vaulted hardwood ceilings frame what was a Baptist church nearly a century ago. By the 1970s, the space had been turned into a famed recording studio.
But on a drizzly Friday last spring, the Providence was jammed with 20- and 30-something MTV programming executives, casting agents, researchers and producers, brought together for "M-Day" or 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: the hair, the vulnerability and the 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 a different 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.