MTV may be about to invoke memories of Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren.
At MTV, those two correspondents interviewed rock stars and U.S. presidential candidates, making MTV as reliable a news source for a certain generation as Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. In a different era, MTV News would break into programming upon learning of seminal events like the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and spur interest in causes (“Rock the Vote,” anyone?) dear to the hearts of its youthful viewers.
MTV News never quite went away entirely – there’s a website, a Twitter feed, a YouTube channel and a Facebook page that offer information about MTV programming as well as some pop-culture aggregation – but executives at the Viacom-owned outlet are attempting to breathe new life into the property. And they hope their efforts will make MTV more relevant to a new generation of viewers trying to make sense of a world stitched together by light-speed communication and working its way through the politics of identity and economic class.
“The engagement that news and commentary can bring to a younger audience is invaluable,” said Jamil Smith, a senior editor at New Republic who is joining MTV News as a senior national correspondent.
The network isn’t looking for the next Loder, Sorenson or even Gideon Yago, but executives do want to create a team that produces higher-quality content that might range from posts to podcasts and documentaries. To kick off the venture, MTV hired Dan Fierman, formerly the editorial director of ESPN’s often celebrated but now defunct Grantland, to oversee MTV News editorial content. He, in turn, has hired a formidable array of writers versed in politics and culture: Charles Aaron, the veteran Spin writer; Ana Marie Cox, the political writer known for her work on the blog Wonkette; and Jessica Hopper, a senior editor from Pitchfork Review, among others. Several of the new personnel hail from Fierman’s former roost, which developed a reputation in a quick period of time for high-quality reporting on sports, music and culture.
“We don’t have 40 people covering this election and what is going on in the country right now,” Fierman said. “We only have a few shots we can take. We’ve got to make sure we have got the best people.”
MTV News, he said, is “trying to charter a new direction, be something that is aspirational, smart, cool, irreverent, funny, fun – in areas where you can really make a difference.” Reporters are likely to cover everything from music to national affairs, and could weigh in from places where big news is happening.
More is at stake here than coming up with the best essay on the many personalities of Fetty Wap or devising a penetrating insight on race or gender. Viacom, which has grappled with ratings declines at some of its best-known networks – MTV included — is eager to use Fierman’s new operation as a means of reviving the network’s brand identity, which has been clouded in recent years by a dependence on reality programs like “Jersey Shore” and “Catfish.”
“I think the ratings story has been told, and it’s real. MTV was off by 24% among its traditional 12-34 audience this past fourth quarter. I think what we’re seeing now is a bit of an identity crisis — not uncommon when a network is looking to shake things up and reinvent itself,” said Brian Hughes, senior VP of audience analysis at Magna Global, the large media investment unit of Interpublic Group. “It feels like the days of ‘Music Television’ are long over, but I guess the question is what the ‘M’ will stand for going forward.”
MTV’s new president thinks he has hit upon an answer. “This is a brand that has always been about elevating youth voices, artists and creators, a brand that was born from music and pop culture. We want to remember that heritage and reinvigorate that creative spark around those precepts,” said Sean Atkins, a former digital executive at Discovery Communications who arrived at MTV this past fall. “MTV News is the first place for this kind of refocus.”
MTV News made a name for itself in its earlier days by examining everything from gay marriage to eating disorders, and energized its base so much that politicians and candidates for office had to make a stop at the network as part of campaigns. President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former governor Mike Huckabee and former governor Mitt Romney are among the elected officials who have given interviews to MTV over the years. Dave Sirulnick, who supervised MTV News and rose to executive vice president of news, documentaries and specials for MTV, left the network last year in the wake of a restructuring effort at Viacom.
Pop-culture aficionados won’t be the only ones watching to see if MTV’s executives get the formula right. Investors and analysts have grown increasingly worried about Viacom’s ability to improve ratings at MTV and Comedy Central. MTV’s new management is “deep in a turnaround plan,” Philippe Dauman, Viacom’s chairman and chief executive, told investors on a conference call earlier this week.
Sparking a revival isn’t a TV-only maneuver. MTV News content is meant to draw eyeballs to the company’s digital and mobile outlets as well as its linear TV network. Executives want to use MTV News to boost digital traffic “by bringing in some real editorial firepower, getting a more pointed point of view and taking quality to the next level,” said Kristin Frank, an executive vice president who oversees digital for MTV and other Viacom networks. MTV’s own site notched approximately 21.2 million unique viewers in December, according to comScore, compared with about 20.2 million in the year-earlier period and 18.4 million in 2013.
Recent MTV content has been more “viral” in nature, said Frank, and the company isn’t going to tamp down on those sorts of posts and articles. But there is a strong desire for “a larger point of view and better storytelling” that can result in content appropriate for everything ranging from TV to Snapchat.
If Fierman has his way, fans will check in with MTV News a few times a day to get a “leading conversation” on the topics that are important to them. “Yes, of course we want to see every unique we have, but the goal is to certainly get people to spend more time on the site,” he said, “and have more of a relationship.”