After Radical Revamp, MTV Enters Upfront With Its First Ratings Momentum in Years

It was exactly one year ago that MTV president Chris McCarthy unveiled his strategy for breathing new life into the struggling network with a mix of live and unscripted shows. While he projected confidence about the ambitious plan at the time, McCarthy now admits he wasn’t so sure it would work.

As his new shows rolled out on the network last spring and summer, “I had a pit in my stomach,” he admitted. “Are we actually going to be able to pull this off?” The answer came in June, which was “a turning point” as his new shows started to gain traction, and MTV reversed its five-year ratings decline. “Then it’s that reassuring feeling—the world is changing, and it’s getting harder, but great content still works, thank God!”

Now, as McCarthy, who also oversees VH1 and Logo, heads into the upfront—making his pitch to buyers as part of Viacom’s agency upfront dinners this month—he has a lot to celebrate. MTV just finished its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year prime-time growth among 18- to 34-year-olds for the first time in seven years. Its ratings are up “double to triple digits” on its various digital and social platforms, according to McCarthy.

And the ratings for McCarthy’s new slate of MTV’s original shows are up nearly 30 percent over the previous year’s crop, led by Jersey Shore Family Vacation, which debuted earlier this month. That show—reuniting the Jersey Shore gang as they celebrated Snooki’s 30th birthday in Miami—was the highest rated series premiere in MTV history in live-plus-3 and has already been renewed for another season.

During the past year, McCarthy also launched new linear hits like Floribama Shore and Siesta Key. Most recently, Ex On the Beach, an unscripted show hosted by Romeo in which contestants on a dating show come face to face with their exes, was MTV’s highest-rated non-Jersey Shore unscripted series debut in more than four years.

“A year ago, we said we were going to revitalize our culture, elevate our content, and really bust out the brand beyond just one platform,” McCarthy said. “We did exactly what we said we would do.”

In the coming year, MTV will air 1,000 episodes of new content. That includes new stunt series Too Stupid to Die—which is “in the spirit of Jackass,” said McCarthy, and will debut in June—and True Life Crime, where each episode will take on a different true crime story that went viral.

Platform expansion

MTV is evolving its programming strategy to target viewers in their most likely platforms, whether that’s linear or digital. “We’re really starting to see the separation of ages by platform. We’re focused on, how do we capture the most viewers in the platforms that they’re on?” said McCarthy. “We’re going to be leaning way heavier into [ages] 12-17 in digital/social. More shows will be created uniquely for there.” Those shows could launch on the linear network, and then move to digital, he added.

That’s what happened with Promposal, which debuted on the network last year and “did well with teens, but the 18-34-year-olds aren’t as interested. So we moved to digital and are doing new episodes there,” said McCarthy.

The most high-profile example of that new strategy is his approach to TRL, which MTV rebooted in October. The linear ratings struggled, but McCarthy said he saw traction on digital and mobile. “When numbers are coming in and one is doing great and the other is not doing as good as you can, for most of us, the knee-jerk is, you either panic or you get excited. And that’s where we get excited. All right, there is actually something here,” he said. “Let’s just keep iterating. If it’s got momentum, it’s worth it to [keep moving].”

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