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Here’s What Happened When MTV Met Gen-Z

The network is overhauling programming, prioritizing music, and capitalizing on new distribution models in a bid to recapture its target audience.

Here’s What Happened When MTV Met Gen-Z
MTV Networks’ president Chris McCarthy is listening to his young audience, responding, and watching ratings rise. [Photo: Nathan Bajar]

If you want to understand how MTV sees its audience in 2017, you could do worse than YouTubing some highlights from August’s iteration of the network’s flagship broadcast, MTV Video Music Awards. Although the show nodded to the network’s most news-making moment of the past decade—Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 awards—by debuting Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video (the latest reverberation in the stars’ feud), the rest of the live broadcast was drama free.

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The categories, to begin with, eschewed gender—just as the MTV Movie & TV Awards had three months earlier—so that Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars competed on level ground with Lorde and Ariana Grande for Artist of the Year (Sheeran won). The Moonman statuette itself, an homage to the iconic flag-planting astronaut logo from the network’s early days, was rebranded as the Moon Person. Performances from Kendrick Lamar, Logic, and Alessia Cara all had a distinctly empowering slant, addressing black identity, suicide prevention, and body image, respectively. Artists with seemingly divergent fan bases—such as Sheeran and the rapper Lil Uzi Vert—came together onstage. And Pink gave a moving speech about resisting gender conformity, recalling how she comforted her daughter, who had been teased for looking like a boy, with images of androgynous rock stars.

The event didn’t adopt this inclusive, diversity-celebrating tone by accident, or even because it reflects a liberal worldview of the executives who run MTV. It came from the viewers themselves, both urban and rural, via deep research the network has been doing into their tastes, habits, and politics. Of particular interest, of course, are the youngest, most crucial cohort: the tweens and teens known as gen Z, whose eyeballs MTV has struggled in recent years to attract. These viewers, the network has come to understand, have a fundamentally different worldview than their parents do, one that’s less organized along the lines of race and gender and sexuality. Straight kids in small-town Mississippi are interested in the lives of trans kids in Chicago, and vice versa. And in the playlist era, musical genres no longer matter.

Findings like these are helping shape the vision of MTV Networks’ new president, 42-year-old Chris McCarthy who was brought over from VH1 last October to salvage an old-media brand that had lost its way in an era of nimble You-Tubers and audience-sapping diversions like Snapchat. (In his new role, he oversees all MTV Networks properties, which also include VH1, Logo, and MTV2.) Between 2012 (when MTV’s last breakout hit, Jersey Shore, went off the air) and this past summer, the channel’s audience had decreased every year, with its share of viewers aged 18 to 24 dropping a stomach-churning 50%. In the interim, MTV had launched and shuttered a bookish, Grantland-inspired reboot of MTV News; strayed from music-centered programming; and only clumsily grappled with the rise of video on social platforms. “The biggest opportunity for us right now is to forget everything we knew and begin to understand a whole new audience, which is something that MTV has always had to do,” says McCarthy, who is a true believer in MTV’s groundbreaking history as the place where, for instance, Pedro Zamora helped destigmatize HIV-AIDS on the third season of The Real World, in 1994. “That’s the fun part—to look at it with a blank slate. Like, How do we actually reinvent for this audience?”

Head of unscripted programming Nina Diaz, left, and GM Amy Doyle are working to make MTV both relevant and responsive. [Photo: Nathan Bajar]
McCarthy—who is affable and articulate and dressed in head-to-toe New York black, down to his Nike Dunks—sits in the corner office he occupies on the 25th floor of Viacom’s Times Square headquarters. He’s a Viacom lifer, arriving at the media giant soon after business school and rising to leadership positions at MTV2, Logo, and VH1. Aside from a shelf full of Emmys and a framed vintage subway map, the office is mostly devoid of decor—an indicator of how fast his team, which also includes GM Amy Doyle and head of unscripted programming Nina Diaz, has been moving. When he got the MTV job last fall, McCarthy immediately cleared out the production pipeline, canceling over a hundred shows in various stages of development. He revamped a handful of others (including Teen Mom), quickly launched several youth-targeted new ones (like Promposal, which is exactly what it sounds like), and streamlined the development process. “Chris is not risk averse,” says Doyle, who worked with McCarthy at VH1 and, in a previous stint at Viacom, was MTV’s head of music. “If we see something we like, we will immediately greenlight it and get it into development and on air as fast as possible.”

MTV has near-universal brand awareness among gen Z viewers, McCarthy says, which represents a huge opportunity—one that MTV has invested considerable resources into seizing. An ongoing study of 1,000 young people drills down into their tastes, values, and habits. On top of that, the network has sent researchers into the field all over the country, observing how these kids consume media in their private lives. Among the many lessons MTV has learned is that gen Z does watch linear TV, although they also watch tons of other stuff on their phones. In all, they spend a remarkable two-thirds of their waking hours consuming content. Their sense of humor, also, is different from that of previous generations: Jokes based on racial differences simply fail to connect—a trend that McCarthy began to observe with millennials when he was building out the dude-centric MTV2 a half decade ago. (Like most of TV, the main MTV channel’s demo skews somewhat female.) “Millennials were starting to grow up in a world where difference was the norm and race was not something that they could quite wrap their head around in terms of comedy,” he says. “It was fascinating. We started putting truly multicultural content on the screen. And the young guys actually flocked to the content.”

Perhaps gen Z’s defining trait, McCarthy says, is its unprecedented digital connectedness—and paradoxical real-life isolation. “You look at self-reported anxiety, and it’s up 50% over the last three years, which is just sort of astounding to think about,” he says. A slew of new shows are built around that insight. A dating show, Undressed, which broke through with young viewers on its first night, aims to jump-start a feeling of interpersonal connectivity by having contestants answer revealing questions while lying together on a bed in their underwear. (One of the couples in the debut episode is gay, which no longer remotely registers as a thing for MTV viewers. In fact, according to MTV’s research, only half of gen Z defines itself as strictly heterosexual.) Siesta Key, a glossy reality show inspired by previous-era MTV hits like The Hills, is “an escapist, beautiful, soapy doc,” says McCarthy. “But over the course of several seasons, you’ll get to see them struggling with health issues, divorce issues, family issues, race-based issues, even huge mistakes that they make.” One of the show’s stars inspired a boycott in early August when racist social media comments and video that seemed to depict him shooting an endangered hammerhead shark from a fishing boat emerged. Because of MTV’s newly accelerated production schedule, Siesta Key was able to quickly address the controversy within the show itself. “The beauty of being able to make great content in real time is we’re able to follow that story and actually see the consequences of some of the decisions,” McCarthy says.

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McCarthy’s changes are working: Ratings at the network were up month over month in June, July, and August, with August prime-time ratings up 31% over the previous year. But overhauling MTV’s linear programming is just the first part of McCarthy’s plan. Now he is working to reinvent the brand for the current digital landscape, helping MTV better compete across platforms and making it less dependent on its main cable channel.


Slideshow: MTV’s new shows are custom tailored for gen Z viewers and their viewing habits, migrating easily between platforms.


On a late-August afternoon, his biggest experiment yet is taking shape on the building’s second floor, where a warren of offices overlooking Times Square is being turned back into a studio for a show that was last seen in 2008, and which McCarthy believes will become the spiritual center of the new MTV. The network is bringing back Total Request Live, the powerhouse pop-music-video countdown show starring Carson Daly that helped drive the music business’s turn-of-the-millennium commercial peak by breaking acts from ‘N Sync to Eminem. The new TRL—which will have daily live performances from Demi Lovato, Migos, Sheeran, and Katy Perry in its first few weeks alone this fall—hopes to have a similar impact, this time because it will be engineered to generate viral moments. The show will feature five young hosts, which it will need because content will be spread, in various ways, across platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly, and YouTube. “The way we are thinking about TRL is not as a one-hour show,” McCarthy says, but, “ideally, 10 viral moments. Maybe five of those will start on linear. The other five will never see the light of day on linear—they will be on all the other platforms.”

There is risk in this approach—after all, cable-TV eyeballs are worth vastly more to the network in ad dollars than Facebook or Snapchat views. But, as McCarthy notes, even if the shift might be short-term painful, it will better position MTV for the future. “We have the luxury of amazing margins, 35 years of amazing IP, and if we liberate ourselves into re-creating the content in different ways, it gives us the latitude to grow the other platforms while the model evolves,” McCarthy says.

When the team quietly began approaching labels and artist managers last spring to gauge their potential interest in a revived TRL, the response, Doyle says, was overwhelmingly positive. “For all of us who were around in the heyday, it was a magical thing that had significant impact on what was happening in music,” says Greg Thompson, president of management giant Maverick, which reps dozens of top stars including Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, and U2. “Chris and Amy have always understood that keeping music part of the conversation was essential to the channel’s identity, and I think [previous execs] lost that message. Everyone needs to remember what the M stands for.”

About the author

Jonathan Ringen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He contributes regularly to Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Details, and Billboard.

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