Cue the stars; cut the music

Special to The Times

As the summer rerun doldrums hit and the major networks venture further into unscripted territory, assorted pop-culture personalities are flocking to MTV for some fun in the sun.

Sunday marks the premieres of Snoop Dogg’s comedy-variety series, “Doggy Fizzle Televizzle,” and Magic Johnson’s show about street basketball, “Who’s Got Game?” Comedian Tom Green premieres the network’s first late-night talk show on Monday. Sean “P Diddy” Combs began another season of “Making the Band” on Wednesday. In August, the network rolls out “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica,” which follows the lives of newly married recording artists Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. And “The Osbournes” started its third season on June 10.

Two decades into the treacherous waters of trying to both define and reflect the tastes of a fickle young audience, MTV is this summer ramping up the star power, particularly among performers from outside the music industry.


Since its inception in 1981 as a music video channel, the network has targeted young viewers, the teens-to-young adults group that is as sought-after as it has been hard to reach. And MTV is the leading cable channel for at least part of that age bracket, coming out on top in the 12-24 demographic. As the novelty of videos wore off and the range of media made young viewers more sophisticated, MTV adapted with new shows; today, the channel spends half its time on videos, the rest on original programming.

The network pioneered the “reality” genre with “The Real World” 13 year ago, then moved on to celebrity-based “reality” shows, starting with “Cribs” four years ago. Subsequent shows, including “Crib Crashers,” “Making the Band,” and “The Osbournes,” have been hits for the network. The hidden-camera show “Punk’d,” which premiered in March and stars Ashton Kutcher, is its latest breakout.

A focus on movie and TV stars is nothing new in the media -- it’s People and US magazine and “Entertainment Tonight” and E!’s reason for being -- and MTV has never been shy about applying star power. But never before has it focused so much air time on personalities whose fame isn’t entirely rooted in music.

Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV and the older-skewing VH1, said MTV’s audience has an insatiable appetite for celebrities, despite saturation coverage throughout the media. But he wasn’t always sure of the channel’s ability to deliver. He remembers sitting in an early meeting about “Cribs” five years ago, asking, “Who’s going to let us in their living room?” That show, in which a camera crew visited stars in their homes, was a hit that led to more celebrity-reality programming.

Most notably, Ozzy Osbourne and his family were featured on the show, and the response was so great that “The Osbournes” was born. That show then spawned a slew of other at-home-with-oddball-celebrity shows on other networks, including “Anna Nicole” and “The Surreal Life.” Most of the artists working with MTV have had ongoing relationships with the network. Kutcher was featured on “Spring Break” specials for years. Snoop Dogg has done short films. Green had been the host of a popular variety show. Johnson was one of the first sports stars to play on the celebrity ballgame show “Rock ‘n Jock” more than a decade ago. And MTV and Combs basically grew up together.

A star casts his lot

“I’ve had a long-term relationship with MTV,” Combs said. “Now that they’re into more regular television programming, I’m going on this ride with them too.”


His “Making the Band II” follows up on last year’s show, which featured the creation of the hip-hop group Da Band. This time, the emphasis is on recording an album, performing live and making a video.

As for Johnson, the former Laker great created a Harlem “streetball” contest, in which 10 men and two women compete against each other in a street basketball contest for $100,000. “They know TV, I know basketball, so it’s a perfect marriage,” Johnson said. “This has been one of the easiest projects to do because they’re so professional and so on top of things.”

Green recalls being amazed at MTV’s promotional aptitude even before his variety show first aired in 1999. “After only about a week of promos, we were having a hard time shooting on the streets of Manhattan,” he said, “because the kids who were watching the network already knew us” and were interrupting the shoots.

Lachey and Simpson, who had initially hesitated when MTV came to them with the “Newlyweds” idea, acquiesced because they realized it was a promotional opportunity for them. Both artists have albums coming out in August, and each could use a sales boost. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” Lachey said. The stars also trust that MTV isn’t going to make them look bad. “We’re all on the same side.” Lachey said. “They help us promote our music, and hopefully we’re helping them by having a great show.”

Because the network has to stay current, it doesn’t need or even want long contracts. “Punk’d” was shot while Kutcher was between movies and was put on the air with only eight episodes.

“We’re accustomed to things burning bright and burning fast, and having to reinvent ourselves every few years,” MTV President Van Toffler said. “It’s from growing up in that music culture. What’s hot one minute, like electronica, is irrelevant the next minute.”


For that reason, a show can go from concept to execution in a few months, keeping both the artist and the network on the cutting edge of pop culture. “When you’re appealing to a young audience that’s sort of fickle and wants to move on to the next thing, that fits our mantra really neatly,” Toffler said.

Yes, some of the shows are forgettable, some of the concepts DOA. But if a show fails, at least MTV has the option simply to run more videos.

According to William Morris Agency Vice President Adam Sher, who put Snoop Dogg’s deal together, “There’s a tremendous cachet that comes along with success at MTV.” For artists and production companies, a show on the network makes them look like they understand the youth market. “If you’re able to have success at MTV, the perception is you’re hip and cool, and people will want to do business with you,” Sher noted.

Movie studios are also eager to cash in. The MTV Movie Awards earlier this month resembled some hip Hollywood Noah’s ark, as pairs of stars -- Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett (“Hollywood Homicide”), Jason Biggs and Alyson Hannigan (“American Wedding”), Paul Walker and Tyrese (“2 Fast 2 Furious”), Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson (“Alex & Emma”), Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell (“S.W.A.T.”), and Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen (“X2”) -- took the stage to present awards

In their banter, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (“Bad Boys 2”) made big fun of the blatant promotional work they were doing, to the audience’s amusement. The evening, which included a short film featuring the stars of “Charlie’s Angel’s 2,” was a long promotional vehicle cloaked in MTV cool.

Network competition

The star-filled horizon isn’t always luminous. As nimble as MTV likes to think it is, sometimes even it misjudges how quickly audiences can turn. The third time has not been a charm for “The Osbournes,” whose season premiere audience a few weeks ago was down almost 50% from the second season launch.


The network still doesn’t know whether it’s going to do another season of its biggest hit, “Punk’d.”

Even shows with a huge buzz have never been able to get the kinds of numbers that the major networks pull in.

And the network sometimes goes too far in its efforts to capture viewers’ attention, as any episode of “Jackass” can attest.

But that risk-taking is also part of the network’s shaggy charm, even if somebody there needs to be held responsible for the slew of unscripted shows clogging TV. “The most notable evolution to MTV is that it started as a music network,” Sher said.

“They’re still doing that, but more importantly they’ve grown to become a pop culture network.”