Programming an extension of persona

MTV follows different path for reality shows

NEW YORK — By allowing musicvideos to take a back seat to more daring reality-based fare, MTV has found a way to constantly generate hype and update its young adult audience.

Yet despite an increase in reality programs from other cable and broadcast nets, MTV has resisted the temptation to create voting-off shows by adhering to an unconventional method of development.

Even though CBS’ “Survivor” spawned a legion of imitators, many of which feature contestants getting eliminated by their peers, MTV prexy of programming Brian Graden says the cabler makes a conscious effort to avoid this trend.

“We’ve really tried to go down paths like ‘Fear’ or ‘Jackass,’ where you can say it looks like reality but it certainly doesn’t look like ‘Survivor,’ ” he says.

Alas, when it comes to elaborating on the process of how MTV creates and chooses its cutting-edge programming, Graden’s answers becomes a bit vague.

“We don’t have seasons at MTV and we believe that good ideas fall from the sky when they come,” he says. “Sometimes they take a month, sometimes they take three years to develop.”

MTV trusts its intuition because the net spends an “inordinate amount of time” with young adults, primarily in focus groups, according to Graden.

Capturing youth

“We immerse ourselves in really trying to understand what it means to be 21 years old,” he says. “Just knowing who they are so that our intuition is honed. I wish I could be more scientific but it’s just not.”

Tim Brooks, TV historian and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Primetime, Network and Cable TV Shows,” says he understands the method behind MTV’s programming strategy.

“It’s not just about developing new shows. You have to be out in front, which is making the establishment mad.”

A program like “Jackass” encapsulates what MTV stands for, according to Brooks, because it walks the fine line of going further than what is perceived as acceptable while falling just short of too far to get the network into legal trouble.

“They’ve done it repeatedly over the years. It’s been their strength.”

MTV also exploits a serious side, most recently with the show “Flipped,” which finds two people swapping places for a day such as a mother and daughter, an African American and Caucasian or a drug user and drug dealer.

“‘Flipped’ is practically a lecture on intolerance,” says Brooks. “To become responsible when the time comes to be responsible is a part of MTV’s brand.”

Offbeat sked

Undoubtedly, the irreverent programming is where the musicvid channel really shines.

“Who Knows the Band?,” for example, premiered Sept. 24 and turns fame on its head by placing the fascination with celebrity within a gameshow format.

Three people, two of which are posers, spin tall tales that connect them to musical artists while two contestants attempt to separate truth from fiction. Marilyn Manson’s dog groomer surfaces on one episode while an impostor posing as Snoop Dogg’s gardener appears on another.

“When you see all of the making-of programs across television, everybody has to have some angle on the process of making fame the ultimate aphrodisiac now, which is how the idea for ‘Who Knows the Band?’ came about,” says Graden.

Ratings or popularity expectations for “Who Knows the Band” or any of MTV’s shows, are impossible to pinpoint, according to Graden, who humbly chalks up any previous programming success as pure luck.

“We get to take credit in the press for shows like ‘Jackass’ and ‘TRL’ but the truth going into a new show is that you really can’t ever make something like that happen,” he admits.

“It’s like lightning striking. I expect it to strike every two or three years. We’ve been really blessed at MTV in the last four or five years because we’ve had it strike multiple times.”

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