How MTV’s Original Programming On Digital Abuse Works In The Real World

Thanks to social media, the ability to tweet and like television programming now goes hand in hand with watching. But can films geared toward raising awareness motivate youth to actually make a change? MTV says yes.


Just when you thought that analytics and stats on television programming didn’t have much meaning beyond attracting big advertising bucks, MTV came along with a fascinating study on the social impact behind the numbers.


Partnering with Harmony Institute, an independent research center, MTV’s aim was to evaluate how its original movie (DIS)connected went beyond passively beaming in to 5 million viewers to show how it measurably shaped their attitudes and responses to digital abuse over the six months surrounding its 2011 release.

For those who didn’t tune in, (DIS)connected is a fictionalized story (based on true events) depicting how everyday online communication can easily cross the line into digital abuse. The movie was a focal point of MTV’s multi-year campaign, “A Thin Line,” geared toward raising awareness and providing resources to allow young people to take a stand against digital abuse–all the more reason to measure if it resonated with its audience. It did. In a major way.

A spokesperson for Harmony Institute tells Co.Create that it would be difficult to compare the MTV movie’s results with other studies they’ve done across different media (with documentaries such as Bully and Waiting for Superman). “However, (Dis)connected was very effective at increasing comprehension about digital abuse with 82% of viewers reporting that digital abuse was a more serious problem than they previously thought after seeing the film.”

(DIS)connected also motivated viewers to actually do something. According to the study:
-49% of viewers surveyed said that they were more likely to join a group concerned with prevention of digital abuse after seeing the movie.
-Nearly 35,000 young people signed their name onto the Digital Bill of Rights following the movie.
-1 in 5 tweets during the film called for an end to digital abuse.
-66% said they were more likely to intervene and support friends experiencing abuse online. 
-59% of viewers surveyed said they were less likely to send or forward inappropriate messages that could hurt somebody else.


Jason Rzepka, MTV’s vice president of public affairs, says the network didn’t have any set metrics to evaluate success or failure when the overall idea for the campaign was born back in 2009. “We were looking at a lot of variables,” he explains, “What was the ascendent issue, what is our ability to make an impact, and how can we use our native superpowers [of storytelling] for good.”

So began MTV’s multi-year process from creating the campaign to tackling digital abuse to producing (DIS)Connected in addition to two other specials under the “A Thin Line” umbrella. True Life: I Have Digital Drama reached more than 18 million viewers in March 2010 and Sexting in America had more than 8 million viewers in February 2010. MTV also just updated its “Over the Line” app, which has attracted more 350,000 ratings from young people asking peers to vote on whether digital behavior may have crossed over into the abusive zone.

Rzepka says MTV was heartened by the early positive response to the campaign. “Before we launched we were apprehensive,” he confesses, explaining that if MTV didn’t get the tone right it could easily turn viewers off. “We worship at the altar of our audience,” he asserts. Movies that proselytize “would be like old man MTV is telling me not to have fun on my friends’ Facebook wall.”

Beyond that early anxiety, Rzepka says it was important to the network to continue to understand the evolving nature of digital abuse all while helping viewers navigate a landscape that doesn’t come with “a code of ethics.” Now with the study, Rzepka says, “We’ve gotten amazing feedback [that gives] permission for this to be a real issue.”

MTV usually juggles three campaigns at a time, Rzepka points out, and coming off the presidential election now leaves room for another issue to bring to the forefront. But it’s never obvious, Rzepka says. “We look for weak signals and weigh about a dozen different issues. It’s a mix of art and science.” Though he wouldn’t give us a detailed list of what’s under scrutiny right now, Rzepka does say that the high rate of unemployment for millennials is under consideration. “How do flickering images on TV or tweets translate into new job opportunities for the audience,” he muses, “in a way that uses MTV’s superpowers to make a meaningful impact?”


Rzepka underscores the fact that MTV isn’t going to draw up a set of hard metrics to measure goals if they do go forward with this or another concept, but he admits if MTV can’t generate a meaningful amount of youth jobs with a potential campaign, they’d look to something else. “We feel that pressure,” he says.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.