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Script Comp

Millennial makeover

MTV production and programming chief Chris Linn tells Jesse Whittock about the importance of the millennial generation and producing for viewers with itchy feet.

Chris Linn

Chris Linn

The US is still buzzing with excitement over basketball’s first Chinese-American superstar, Jeremy Lin, who exploded on to the scene from nowhere early this year to take the game by storm. His story even spawned a new term for excitement: Linsanity.

Among Lin’s largest group of supporters has been the basketball-mad millennial generation – today’s 12-34s. And just as he has caught their hearts and minds through his displays on the court, Viacom youth network MTV has gone after the same demo in a bid to win back audiences lost as Generation X, born between 1960 and 1980 and which made it famous, moved on to pastures new.

Throughout the 2000s, MTV had been shedding its dedicated early fans as they grew up and moved on to broadcast television and, increasingly, much-improved cable networks like E! Entertainment Television, complete with original series and niche identities.

MTV had stuck with aspirational reality shows like The Hills, those focusing on wealth and shallowness, and according to its own president Stephen Friedman needed “a total reinvention and complete overhaul.”

By 2009, MTV decided it must go after the millennials to stand any chance of reversing the ratings slump and formed a new programming strategy based around that demographic. Rivals such as ABC had already recognised this, bringing in younger-skewing series to cater for the gritty demo.

That December, MTV’s move paid off when it struck gold with its structured reality series Jersey Shore. The unscripted series features Italian-American ‘Guido’ and ‘Guidette’ 20-somethings living together each summer with the cameras on 24/7.

It was controversial but importantly connected with the audience, which identified with the down-to-earth cast. The first season ranked number one among US cable series in its timeslot among 12-34s and averaged a weekly 2.7 million viewers. Four more seasons have followed, plus two spin-offs, The Pauly D Project, which launched on March 29, and Snooki & JWoww vs the World.

MTV’s executive VP of MTV programming and head of production Chris Linn says developing an intimate knowledge of the millennial mindset is the only way to produce the right content for them.

Jersey Shore

Jersey Shore

“My job is to develop hits for our network and to know our audience better than ever, and we spend an enormous amount of time with millennials to understand what’s going on with their lives,” he says. “Out of that we might get ideas for a new show, or at least ideas of how to execute our shows and feel specific and relevant to them. MTV shows should be tailor-made for our audience and we need to make programmes that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.”

Besides the spin-offs, Jersey Shore has also spawned a format remake for MTV in the UK, Geordie Shore, and programmes such as UK broadcaster ITV’s The Only Way is Essex and E4’s Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives owe much of their structured reality format to the programme as well.

Linn says the move towards content that’s considered more ‘real’ has won out. “One of the reasons Jersey Shore has really connected with our audience is its authenticity. It’s a show built on eight loud and unique characters and their experiences together on the show,” he explains. “It was really bold and it continues to resonate. I believe that’s because it’s not scripted and that the drama and comedy are allowed to happen naturally. It’s really a documentary series or, in the pure sense, a reality series.”

New York-based Linn was installed as MTV’s head of production in February 2010 and took on programming duties later that year upon the departure of former president of programming Tony DiSanto. His latest task has been to take MTV into scripted programming, through shows such as Awkward, The Hard Times of RJ Berger and Skins, as “the move to diversify our slate continues.”

Half-hour comedy Awkward has rated well and is coming back in 2012, but both RJ Berger and the remake of UK drama Skins have been dropped, raising questions about exactly how gritty the millennials really are. “We were very proud of Skins and while it ultimately didn’t come back for a second season, it really put us on the map in terms of understanding our move into scripted as a genre,” says Linn.

He puts the cancellation down to ratings, rather than negative reaction from advertisers, which withdrew under pressure from conservative lobby groups over the programme’s depictions of teenage sex and drugs.

The Pauly D Project

The Pauly D Project

Though MTV boosted its ratings last year, averaging 1.2 million across the year to October in cable, according to Nielsen data, there’s never been a more competitive time for traditional linear broadcasters – something Linn is only too aware of. “There’s definitely more competition in terms of the number of networks going after our core demo and the number of platforms that you can consume media through. So that means we have to raise the bar on our shows and be that much stronger and better executed to make sure we remain where our audience goes to get its entertainment,” he says.

But the millennial space is not only a key demographic for niche youth-skewing cablenets and occasionally the broadcast networks. On-demand platforms such as Netflix and Hulu and social media video-streaming platforms like YouTube and Facebook are in the space too.

Indeed, Facebook has 600 million unique users, 153.9 million of them in the US, according to the latest comScore data. Meanwhile, Google sites, driven by YouTube, garnered 152 million unique views in January alone. Significantly for MTV, of the video portal’s new channel partners, it was Vevo’s music content feed that scored the highest, with 50.6 million views.

In all, 84.4% of all US internet users watched online video and no matter how many Jersey Shores you have, the numbers traditional TV can draw will never match it. So who does Linn consider to be MTV’s biggest threat and how can linear TV fight back?

“Honestly, our main competition is everything. Anything that can grab our audience is something we have to counteract and we can only do that by honing the development process and making content as strong as possible,” he says.

MTV’s own digital efforts are led by its 360º strategy, meaning that it aims content at its young audience through any number of TV, tablet, mobile and computer devices. Its website,, encompasses dedicated music platforms, online video content and streams of its linear programming.

However, Linn says that when producing for millennials, the key is to develop an idea that will work as a standalone television show first and foremost. “Developing ideas really starts with knowing the audience and coming up with fresh angles. Everything else is a distribution conversation.”

More important to retaining audiences, he continues, is looking to keep a schedule as varied as possible. “Our audience enjoys many genres – reality, scripted, variety and music, for example – so we continue to look at the portfolio to make sure we have all the boxes ticked. Looking forward, you’ll see we continue to have a balance of authentic doc series, music-infused series and comedies.”



Among MTV’s new series is Underemployed, a comedy from Dirty Sexy Money creator Craig Wright shot in Chicago (though it has drawn ire from the producers of Fun Employed, a similar drama, who claim to have been ripped off). As the title suggests, it deals with a huge bugbear of the millennial generation: the economy.

Linn says while the wobbling US economy hasn’t affected what MTV can produce it has changed the millennial audience’s thinking. “The narrative of the economy right now is about the impact on our audience and how they perceive the world,” he says. “This is a generation that’s grown up supremely confident, thinking they’re all going to be instant millionaires.

“But with the American economy the way it is, that’s changing how they see the world and the kinds of entertainment they’re looking for. They want more escapism and comedy and really want to be entertained in a new way. This requires that we stay connected to them and anticipate and deliver what they’re looking for.”

But staying connected is easier said than done. With all the entertainment options available, it’s no easy task to second-guess that and no show is guaranteed success, as Linn notes. “The big challenge is that the audience is so dynamic right now – the way technology is impacting their lives, the number of screens they watch and the economy. They are constantly changing and evolving.

“Our challenge is keeping up with them. They have access to so much media; they are connoisseurs and the bar just keeps getting higher and higher. To grab and sustain their attention we have to stay in touch and keep delivering incredibly strong and compelling content. There was a time when their options were limited and it was easier to please them. Now that challenge is greater but we’re up for it.”

Millennials’ love for basketball’s Jeremy Lin will depend on his performance over coming seasons. As his TV namesake knows, the same can be said for MTV.

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