How MTV Decided to Abandon Rebellion

MTV used to be a parent-free zone, but over the last several years the network has overhauled its programming to cater to a generation that views Mom and Dad more as friends than enemies.

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Courtesy of MTV

Over the last few years, MTV has introduced a number of shows targeting the millennial generation, including "Teen Mom 2."

Not so long ago, reality programs featuring wealthy teens and twenty-somethings — shows like “The Hills” and “Laguna Beach,” both set in affluent California communities — were garnering strong ratings for MTV. By the time Stephen Friedman became the network’s president in 2008, however, viewer tastes were beginning to change. In particular, the 43-year-old Friedman found that these programs simply weren’t resonating with so-called millennials, the generation of Americans born between 1980 and 2000.

So Friedman launched an across-the-network reinvention of MTV’s programming, quickly dropping the two shows and replacing them with programs like “Teen Mom,” which became one of MTV’s highest-rated shows during its three-year run and led to “Teen Mom 2;” and “Awkward,” now the network’s longest-running scripted comedy.

We recently spoke with Friedman about the kind of programming that appeals to millennials; the reason that he toned down the network’s long-standing ethos of rebellion; and why it suddenly became OK to acknowledge the existence of parents on MTV.

You’ve spearheaded a reinvention of MTV to target millennials. How exactly have you changed the network’s programming?

When I got the job in 2008, one of the first things I did was partner up with our research department to do a very deep dive into where our audience was. We really wanted to look at this generational shift that was very much in process, and what we found was that our programming was still too focused on Generation X.

How so?

“The Hills” was an example of a show that was pioneering at the time. It looked unlike any other reality show with its cinematic quality. That show was still very popular, but our audience started questioning, “Is this really reality?” What became clear is that this audience seemed to be looking for something that was much more authentic to their experience. So while there were a lot of fans of a show like “The Hills,” we saw the age range moving up. Our typical average age of a show now is around 21. Then it was much closer to 24 or 25.

So you felt viewers weren’t buying in to shows like “The Hills”?

Our audience was saying, Is it real? They were questioning us. One of the shows that our audience really loved consistently was “True Life,” which we had been doing for a decade. It’s a mini-documentary and could not be more authentic and honest in its portrayal of a young person’s experience. The other was “Made,” which is another show where young people are trying to figure out their way. Those shows continued to rank really high in terms of repeatability and our audience’s connection to them. On the other hand, we did a show about Paris Hilton finding her best friend, and our millennial audience was like, Are you kidding me? She’s really going to find her best friend? They didn’t buy the entire premise.

What did they want instead?

When we went into the research, the audience was saying to us, Where is the authentic representation of our lives? And it became very clear that this massive generational shift was underway and we needed to overhaul just about every part of our brand to connect with millennials.

So what makes millennials different?

I’m an Xer, and I grew up watching “Peanuts,” where you didn’t even see the parents. The parents were that “wah wah” voice. And MTV was always a parent-free zone. But suddenly, we were hearing from our audience that they didn’t make a move without their parents. A lot of the audience outsources their superego to their parents. For the most simple decision of should I do this or should I do that, our audience will check in with their parents before they make that decision, which was a fascinating insight.

Around early 2009, we brought on another show, “16 and Pregnant.” It was a family drama. The parents and grandparents were involved, and we got a powerful response to that show and unbelievably good ratings from the beginning. We then found four of the women who had had babies on the show and created “Teen Mom,” which has been a strong show for us. And that really was a result of this change in attitudes: If we’re going to represent millennials, we need to reflect the lives of their family.

Millennials see their parents as friends and not necessarily authority figures?

There’s no question about it. It went from kids are “seen and not heard” to suddenly young people are the center of their parents’ universe. Where they were on the periphery, now they’re at the center. And then you add this mix of technology, which makes the kids the chief technology officers of the home. Those are two of the biggest, strongest changes in how this audience interacts with the world.

You introduced new scripted shows as well. Why?

In 2008, 2009, we were doing a focus group with young women, ages 18 to 24. The moderator asked them, What is the most authentic show on television? — because this notion of authenticity kept coming up. Two women raised their hands almost simultaneously and said, “True Blood.” All of us were perplexed. The young women made clear that even though the show is about vampires, the writing speaks to some aspect of their lives.

That helped us understand that if we were really going to understand our audience, scripted was going to be a very important part of our programming mix. And “Awkward” and “Teen Wolf” have been audience favorites. In those shows our audience is able to see their lives amplified in a way that reality can’t capture. It could be that the nuance and the complexities of life are hard to capture with reality programming. I think sometimes you just need a different genre or a different way to do it.

MTV also changed the way it presents its political coverage, right?

When we shared our political catchphrase, “Choose or Lose,” with our audience, they felt it didn’t make any sense. Millennials believe you can vote and not have an impact. They felt that the notion that voting is going to get them what they want is too simplistic — which is fascinating. That would not have been an issue for us even four or eight years ago. But with this generation, any time you talk about elections and voting, the audience would think about how they have massive student debt, or that they can’t find a job. So we came up with a very different campaign name, which spoke as much to the audience as it does to the politicians: “Power of ’12.” This audience believes they are an empowered generation. That was a pretty profound shift.

Most of the things being written about this generation are negative. Millennials are said to be more narcissistic, and to exhibit more depression and anxiety, than previous generations. In your experience, are these generalizations on target?

On the whole, we find that they’re remarkably optimistic even though they’re facing probably the worst job market in the past 60 years. So I think what’s surprising to us is their resilience. I think a few years ago, we did see a sense of expectation that they were going to achieve everything by the age of 30. What’s fascinating is that you see a new sense of humility among those who have graduated after 2008.

You’re a generation removed from millennials. Do you feel that you’re learning from them?

I’m absolutely learning from them. It’s one of the best parts of this job. I grew up with an MTV that had this idea of rebellion. Rebellion was central to its ethos. When we ask the current audience “What are you rebelling against?” they don’t know how to answer the question. If you think about the Boomers, they were protesting the system. And you think about the Xers, they just checked out of the system. The current generation believes they are the system and that they’re going to reimagine the culture. That makes more sense and I think is more optimistic.

You’d think the one thing young people would always rebel against would be their parents, but not these days.

Oh, no. They’re not rebelling against their parents at all. They’re moving in with them. They don’t want to leave.