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].”

So he has retooled TRL into a trio of programs, airing in three separate dayparts. This morning, MTV premiered Total Request AM, “which will be more of a pure music play, where it’s really the traditional countdown, as people get up and ready,” McCarthy said. “That is actually when people either put the news show on, or will put music on. So what if we did an hour-long playlist with very limited [ads], that gives you the same thing that people would listen to in morning radio shows.”

The afternoon TRL block returns today, but will mostly be on digital platforms, with short-form linear content. McCarthy said he realized that while he can reach teens digitally and socially after school, “we’re not going to change the overall habits of TV viewers in the afternoon, which is where it’s struggling the most.”

Instead, he saw an opportunity in late night, where in February he launched Total Request Late Night, MTV’s version of Watch What Happens Live, on Mondays and Tuesdays. It will begin airing three nights a week during the summer and four nights by later in the year.

Like many other Viacom networks, MTV will be expanding into the festival space to lure fans and brands. Next year, the network will bring back its Spring Break event for the first time in a decade and is planning a Yo! MTV Raps block party— Yo! MTV Raps: 30th Anniversary Experience—in Brooklyn on June 1 ahead of reviving the show as a daily, digital series.

“Where we probably went awry is when we let go of those events in the U.S.,” said McCarthy of the return to the live event space. “So it feels great to go back.”

McCarthy’s moves are providing new opportunities for brands on MTV. Six years ago, “a number of clients may not have wanted to run in Jersey Shore. But now that these guys are in a different stage of their life [on Jersey Shore Family Vacation], we’ve had a ton of clients that are willing to come in, so that’s a fresh, new opportunity for us,” said McCarthy. He scheduled that series on Thursday nights, mainly in response to feedback from movie studios, who had wanted bigger shows they could use to advertise their new releases for that weekend.

More to come

As he looks ahead to MTV’s coming year, “we’re just getting started,” McCarthy said. “I’m one of the few who still thinks there’s a ton of room for growth in ratings.” One way to do that will be increasing the hours of new programming and expanding the nights of original programming to seven nights a week (currently, MTV airs as much as five nights of new programming per week).

In addition to MTV’s momentum, McCarthy is also seeing continued success at VH1, which just finished its 11th consecutive quarter of year-over-year growth. The network boasts six of the top 10 unscripted series on cable, which shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, America’s Next Top Model, Martha & Snoop and the Love & Hip Hop franchise.

“In many ways, VH1 was the road map for how we did MTV, and the whole sensibility and speed in which the way the team works,” he said.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.