April 19, 2009 | By Tim Arango
Four buddies set off across the country in an R.V., video camera in tow, to knock items off their “100 things to do before I die” list: kiss the Stanley Cup, get a tattoo, grow a mustache.
With plenty of high jinks and adolescent humor, The Buried Life seems like the perfect MTV reality show, except for one unexpected twist. At each stop the group helps deserving locals with their own wishes. In Idaho, for example, they took eight children with brain cancer on a shopping spree at Toys “R” Us.
Meet MTV for the era of Obama. After years of celebrating wealth, celebrity and the vapid excesses of youth, MTV is trying to gloss its escapist entertainment with a veneer of positive social messages.
Last fall, after the financial crisis erupted but before the presidential election, MTV executives gathered in New York for meetings to discuss the direction of the network and whether programs like The Hills, which chronicles the lives of the young and rich in Los Angeles, and My Super Sweet 16, a weekly visit to over-the-top coming-out parties, had trapped MTV in a decadent age that was passing.
The talk wasn’t just academic. While MTV may still be a cultural touchstone for America’s youth, its ratings are down considerably from earlier this decade.
Executives looked at in-house research and the work of William Strauss, a generational expert who gave a presentation to MTV executives last fall, and saw that the country’s young were deeply engaged in the election and becoming more civic-minded.
One point of discussion at the meetings was whether shows about rich young girls were still relevant.
“It was very clear we were at one of those transformational moments, when this new generation of Millennials were demanding a new MTV,” said Stephen Friedman, MTV’s general manager, using the term for those born between 1980 and 2000.
In the era that was passing, Mr. Friedman said, “the humor was more cynical, the idea of community seemed earnest and not cool. It’s the opposite now.”
As a result, a new reality program, T.I.’s Road to Redemption, shows a troubled rapper helping keep children on the straight and narrow. Nick Lachey, the former boy band star who was married to Jessica Simpson, his co-star on the MTV program Newlyweds, is producing Taking the Stage, a reality show about a performing arts school in Cincinnati. A finishing school show, From G’s to Gents, tries to transform homeboys into gentlemen — or at least get them to cover their tattoos — with the help of Fonzworth Bentley, who was Sean Combs’s valet.
Other networks, like CBS, Fox and NBC, have adjusted their programming to reflect the more austere times, with some escapist programs like Desperate Housewives introducing plots about the downturn. But MTV, which caters to 14- to 26-year-olds, often fickle in their tastes, has to be more astute at taking the cultural temperature.
“There’s a lot of different factors for MTV than a network would face if it were focused on the broader 18-to-49 demographic,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media-buying company. “I think as a programmer at MTV you always have to be one step ahead of the curve.”
Even with the changes, MTV’s lineup still has plenty of wealth, celebrity and sophomoric humor. My Super Sweet 16, about rich families throwing their daughters’ 16th birthday parties, and MTV Cribs, which celebrates the outlandish homes of the young and wealthy, remain on the air.
“It’s not like you flip a light switch from one type of programming to another,” said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks. “The notion of escapism will still live next to inspiration.”
Some of MTV’s many critics, who over the years have raised questions about the quality of the shows and their effects on children, are cautiously optimistic.
“MTV is an enormously important medium in terms of kid culture,” said James Steyer, the chief of Common Sense Media, a group that promotes family-oriented entertainment and has been critical of MTV for sexually explicit programming. “We want to encourage the good, and we’ll call out the bad when we see it.”
More broadly, MTV’s overhaul comes in the context of programming changes across Viacom, the network’s parent company, which has a new deal with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make shows more supportive of education. And the company recently started a Programming Council, which meets periodically to consider programming messages and includes executives across Viacom — MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.
Historically, MTV has had to reinvent itself from time to time, Mr. Toffler said. In the late 1990s, he said, “grunge gave way to the pop phenomenon of Britney and ’N Sync. To go from grunge to the bling was a big shift.”
The latest cultural shift hasn’t been kind. This season, 19 percent fewer households are tuning in on average during prime time than in the 2002-3 season, according to Nielsen Media Research. About 1 million individual viewers, on average, tuned in for prime time in 2002-3, compared with 775,000 this season. MTV executives say a better measure is overall total day ratings, and by this measure MTV is down about 13 percent since 2002-2003. It is still the top-rated cable network among 12-to-24-year-olds.
“When you give way from one generation to the next, from Gen X to the Millennials, you are going to see some blip in the ratings,” Mr. Toffler said.
Michael Hirschorn, whose company, Ish Entertainment, produced T.I.’s Road to Redemption, said: “It felt like a compelling narrative and a way to see a celebrity in a new and surprising way. You normally see a guy like him swaggering through music videos.”
MTV executives pointed to several recent bright spots — a 2 percent increase in ratings, a growing audience for Taking the Stage — that they attribute to the new focus. Still, hits like The Hills aren’t disappearing. Even The Real World, which began in 1992 and helped usher in the reality-TV era, is being further tweaked to focus less on roommate fights and drunken hook-ups and more on aspirations.
“It’s less about the hot tubs and the drama and more about pursuing their careers,” Mr. Friedman said.