Nets enter guy game

MTV joins fray for the elusive demo

Brace yourself for the battle for boys — a free-wheeling, lowbrow pursuit of the “Jackass” and “Borat” nation that, like a teenager’s face, is breaking out all over.

Waging perhaps the biggest push is MTV, which is getting back into the guy game years after “Jackass” last made the channel a first stop for the XY set.

It’s a bold move: Having more recently sweet-talked teen girls with such hits as “Laguna Beach” and “My Super Sweet 16,” MTV is jumping back into the lives of the lucrative but more elusive demo.

It’s no secret that networks have a lot more success with women, whose TV viewing time eclipses that of men. Chock up ABC’s cachet to femme hits “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ugly Betty” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Even action-packed shows like “Heroes” and “Lost” heavily skew female.

But boys are more fickle than ever. In 2003, the television industry went into shellshock after 12% of men 18-34 went MIA fromprimetime — and never returned. This year, guys caused a media stir for both “Snakes on a Plane” and “Borat” months ahead of their theatrical premieres — but only “Borat” delivered the dollars.

MTV is throwing its hat back in the ring at a time when several new high-profile ventures are going after dudes, prized for their “early adopter” traits. Advertisers and programmers lust after young men because the demo plays hard to get more than any other aud, jumping from sports to DVDs to YouTube to videogames — with series programming somewhere in the mix — in the blink of an eye.

“They’re arguably the trendsetting audience, very quick to embrace new media and new ideas,” says MTV Networks music group entertainment prexy Brian Graden.

Reigning in those short attention spans can pay off — what’s at stake are billions of dollars in advertising.

Congloms are taking the most at-bats in the online space thanks to the YouTube boom. Recent entries include Turner Broadcasting’s Super Deluxe, a sort of broadband version of nighttime net Adult Swim; MTV’s the Stew, a destination on its broadband channel Overdrive that will house original and library content; and FearNet, a horror/VOD offering from Comcast, Sony and Lionsgate.

Male-focused cablers also continue to come out swinging. Adult Swim, Turner’s nighttime net devoted to subversive animation, remains the demo leader; and MTV2 is up double-digits in the demo year-to-date; Comcast-owned gamer channel G4 is broadening its fare thanks to a new influx of cash from its parent company.

Meanwhile, World Wrestling Entertainment and fight franchise “Ultimate Fighting Championship” continue to be big with young men, keeping USA Network atop cable rankings and Spike TV from going under.

Nearly all of the on-air and online contenders in the male arena have been inspired by “Jackass” and Adult Swim, investing heavily in raunchy or shocking humor. Graden, however, is betting guys are interested in more than just viral videos and potty laffs.

He’s taking several programming shots at the demo over the next few months, the most risky of which is “TwentyFourSeven,” billed as a real-life version of “Entourage,” premiering Dec. 6.

“It’s fundamentally about these guys trying to make it in Hollywood, and the world through their eyes,” he says. “There’s a certain adrenaline there, but it’s pretty dramatic. I think that’s something young males are missing on TV.”

Graden will take his strongest shots where he thinks young men are most underserved on MTV. Those plans are under wraps, but are said to include gambits in sports and animation. And he hopes “TwentyFourSeven” does even better than MTV’s rookie unscripted football drama “Two-a-Days,” which drew an average of nearly 2 million viewers and jumped the gun on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” by several months.

“Most go after this audience with some crazy-ass comedy,” Graden says. “Our portfolio approach offers a lot more flavors than that.”

Of course, comedy is still key. Having moved the “Jackass” brand to spruce up sister channel MTV2, Graden is slowly rolling out the next generation of potential hits. They include “Human Giant,” a fast-paced half-hour of comedic sketches, and recently bowed “Odd Couple”-style “Rob & Big,” which is growing slowly. Channel’s other guy gambits — trash talk competition “Yo Momma,” reality sitcom “Run’s House” and laff battle “Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘n’ Out” — all hover around a solid 2 million viewers per run.

Still, none of those yet approach the 5 million that once tuned in for an episode of “Sweet 16.”

Comcast programming prexy Jeff Shell says repeating that success is a tall order.

“There is no silver bullet with this audience,” says Shell, whose G4 has been expanding its focus on videogame culture. “At G4, we’re not looking for a ‘game-changing’ program. We’re looking to have an ever-changing mix.”

So far, that mix includes newly purchased repeats of “Star Trek,” “The Man Show,” “Cops” and “Arrested Development.” Shell is also busy courting the demo with Versus, which morphed from the Outdoor Life Network into a sports channel when Shell bought hockey rights last year.

“For MTV, a hit comes from a rating that can’t be built off any single demo,” Graden says. Grabbing guys is more about balancing out the channel’s sked, he says, recently heavy with female-skewing series.

“Guys want shows that are tonally just for them,” he adds. “We’ll offer some of that, and some shows that will also appeal to both guys and girls.”

Among outlets that will rely on laffs that push the envelope is Turner’s Super Deluxe, set to bow next year, which will feature edgy humor from professional comics and aspiring amateurs. The company knows a thing or two about gents: Turner came into a windfall of coin after launching Adult Swim just five years ago.

Turner entertainment prexy Mark Lazarus compares the site to a pay cable network. “That means some profanity and raunch, sure. It’ll be edgier than anything we’d be able to do on TBS,” he says.

And he thinks that’s enough to differentiate it from the competish.

“We think consumers are craving that no-holds-barred content,” Lazarus says. “We have over 100 deals with talent now … so clearly, the creative community is craving it too.”

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