As ratings drop, network overhauls lineup

In trying to keep its hold on young and fickle audiences, MTV over the decades has undergone some fundamental programming shifts, but never before on this scale.

The cabler’s recent ratings declines include a 23% fourth-quarter drop in its core demo of 12- to 34-year-olds. So MTV is embarking on a major programming overhaul, with 16 new unscripted series over the next 4½ months.

The series come from high-profile producers including Sean Combs, Matt Stone & Trey Parker, Donald Trump and Nick Lachey. And they represent a major thematic shift for the channel — more toward the meta-scripted reality of MTV’s “The Hills,” one of the cabler’s few success stories these days.

While MTV pioneered reality series with 1992’s “The Real World,” that genre has become ubiquitous, so the network is offering a slate that avoids the backbiting and bitchery of most nonfiction fare.

“Our new shows will feature themes of affirmation and accomplishment,” says Brian Graden, prez of entertainment at MTV Networks music channels and president of Logo. “Our shows are going to focus less on loud and silly hooks and more on young people proving themselves. These are themes that are consistent with the Obama generation.”

Last week, MTV unveiled eight of the series, which will aim visually for either “the cinematic feel of ‘The Hills’ ” (according to Graden) or aesthetics that are novel to reality television. “We needed a new visual language,” he says.

For example, the “College Life” producers gave U. of Wisconsin freshman camcorders, then turned them loose to shoot their own lives.

“You get an intense sense of reality that you haven’t seen on television before,” Graden says. “These are (techniques) that are interesting that I don’t see anyone else doing.”

Other upcoming launches include an untitled series focused on students at Cincinnati’s School for Creative & Performing Arts that’s produced by Lachey.

The Trump-produced “Girls of Hedsor Hall” will follow a dozen hard-partying young women as they’re whisked off to an English finishing school. The series will debut in January.

Once fully unfurled, MTV’s new slate will expand its weekday primetime block of original programming to 9-11 p.m. — an hour more than the current 10-11 p.m. A primetime block also will be established on Sunday from 9-11 p.m.

“I don’t remember a period of ever making as much significant change at once,” Graden concedes.

Of course, launching all these shows and time periods won’t be cheap. While MTV used to be able to rely on its own buzz to premiere series, Graden concedes the channel has to put significant marketing money behind each new show.

Advertisers, who have seen the channel bounce back before, seem to be expecting the best.

“They may have been knocked down a peg or two, but they’re still pretty high up on the rung,” says an ad agency TV buyer who deals regularly with MTV. “They still get most of the 12-34 money that’s out there. They’re still very relevant.”

After two decades of spectacular growth, MTV has in the past five years or so settled into the challenges of a mature media business.

There have been several rounds of big layoffs in the past two years, including one in early December, with parent conglom Viacom finding plenty of overhead to trim within an MTV music group staff roster that had grown “fat” — as one MTV Networks staffer put it — through years of success.

In October, there was the restructuring of MTV’s ad sales department, which has struggled to find ways to get the channel’s young viewers to watch ads amid the switchover to commercial ratings. This included the departure of ad sales prexy Hank Close.

There also has been a huge digital push in recent years, with MTV marshalling considerable resources to follow its viewers into emerging realms like social networking and vidgaming.

MTV’s fight for relevance in the digital age has led it to the same conclusion that many others rooted in the traditional media biz have come to: Big broadband traffic is certainly achievable for traditional media companies, but it isn’t easily monetized with ad dollars.

“We’re finding out that digital isn’t the holy grail that everyone thought,” says one channel insider.

Meanwhile, concentrating so much on digital media might have distracted channel denizens from an essential truth — that is, that traditional TV viewers were beginning to turn away from the flagship channel in droves.

Only three series have launched since July, as Graden and his team began to overhaul the channel’s development slate.

Shows that matched MTV’s new thematic vision of young people bettering themselves, such as “From G’s to Gents” — a kind of nonfiction “My Fair Lady” featuring rough-edged urban teenagers — went on the air as planned.

Meanwhile, fourth-quarter launch plans were scuttled for a number of projects like “50 Cent: The Money and the Power” — which typified the kind of ethos MTV is trying to move away from.

And, perhaps only still important for the era of transition it symbolizes, removed from the sked was MTV’s decade-old “Total Request Live,” which had at one time been the channel’s gravitational equivalent to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

“This has been a six-month period with fewer launches than I can remember,” Graden says. “And I wish there wasn’t, but there has been a cost to ratings because of that — probably more than we expected.”

Ratings have been terrible over that period, with numbers for females 12-24 cratering 33% and males 12-24 dropping 24%.

Even the network’s top-rated “The Hills” has not been immune to erosion, with original episodes tumbling 26% in 12-34 viewers in the fourth quarter compared with the same period last year.

A correction was made to this article at 6:57 p.m.

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