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MTV gets with a new program

Special to The Times

Though it might appear that shows like “Laguna Beach,” “The Real World” and “The Hills” have defined young people better than any others, MTV is moving away from high-gloss and into homemade.

In an attempt to reconnect with young audiences that have drifted from the channel recently, MTV will begin to roll out series that showcase the best of the Web, require heavy viewer participation and feature the lives of real teens. While YouTube and MySpace made noise first by trafficking in do-it-yourself media, MTV will now put viewers in the driver’s seat by serving teens the entertainment they crave most: the kind they create.

Internet pages about themselves. Video shorts they direct. Sliced and diced bits of movies and TV shows, re-cut into something new.

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In an exclusive interview with The Times, Brian Graden, MTV Networks’ music group entertainment president, unveiled a different direction for the channel in which MTV acts as the hub for multitasking teenagers.

MTV isn’t the only outlet having trouble keeping the young demographic satisfied these days. Over the last year and a half, once-powerful teen magazines, including Teen People, YM, Teen and Elle Girl, have folded.

The key for MTV will be developing shows that will drive viewers to spend time on series-related online games, in Web communities or on cellphones coughing up jokes of the day.

“We can either stay in the mass business,,” Graden said, “or we can be in the hyper-specialty business where the shows may not have broad appeal but in the Digital Age would better engage our viewers.”

He said that the current series “Scarred” and “Human Giant” are examples of the new strategy. “User-generated content has to become reflected in our programming,” Graden said. “Something like ‘Scarred,’ which tells the stories behind the Web’s most gruesome clips of crashes, wipeouts and accidents, “is based on footage that may already be infamous, but it’s our own narrative accompanying it.”

Going forward, all shows will have a heavy digital component working in conjunction with the show. Casting for “The Real World,” for example, will take place entirely online; “My Super Sweet 16,” which chronicles extravagant birthday bashes, will soon feature home videos from MTV viewers that will account for “a significant portion of our on-air episodes,” Graden said.

The changes arrive as MTV wrestles with its first ratings woes in years. “The Real World” still rules as MTV’s top franchise, but ratings for the current 18th season, filmed in Denver, have fallen to its lowest tallies since 2001’s 10th season.

The 10 Spot, MTV’s signature weeknight10 p.m. programming block, has also lost its footing, drawing an average 454,000 viewers ages 12 to 34 last quarter after peaking in the first quarter of 2004 (when “The Osbournes” and “Newlyweds” were in full force) with 842,000 viewers.

Its recent misfires with critics and viewers have included the Jennifer Lopez dance competition “DanceLife,” the “Laguna Beach"-style “Maui Fever” and “TwentyFourSeven,” which Times television critic Robert Lloyd noted in his worst-of-2006 essay. The network’s fourth newlywed show, “Bam’s Unholy Union,” and its retooled “Road Rules” also rated poorly.

“I’m From Rolling Stone,” in which young journalists competed to work at the music magazine, never had a chance, drawing fewer than 350,000 viewers on average.

The attempts to catch up have already started. The after-show following last month’s finale of “The Hills” was a mishmash of media, combining a live studio audience, online instant messaging and a Q&A; between the series’ cast and home viewers conducted via webcam.

“TRL” (“Total Request Live”), once the network’s demographic-defining show, will get a new title and a creative overhaul this summer. Graden said online participation would become essential when the show relaunches (whereas today viewers can still vote by calling in).

Music videos on the channel outside of “TRL” will also get a face-lift, and by summer “a good number of the videos in rotation” will have the viewers’ thumbprints on them, Graden said.

Even for a network that prides itself on innovation, the gamble is a big one.

“It’s all kind of radical,” Graden said, in a tone both excited and anxious.

The new direction echoes Graden’s tastes -- he’s known industrywide for being gutsy yet mainstream. The bicoastal executive’s Santa Monica office is decorated with “Jackass” memorabilia and posters of “Noah’s Arc” and “Jacob and Joshua: Nemesis Rising,” programs from MTV Networks’ Logo, a channel aimed at gay audiences, which he runs as president.

Graden, who previously worked in development at Fox before rising to head of all programming for MTVN’s music networks, is also credited with having discovered Trey Parker and Matt Stone, commissioning the then-unknown pair to create a holiday video card that later became the basis for the Comedy Central hit “South Park.”

Graden and Lois Curren, president of series entertainment for MTV, said that a slate of pilots currently shooting is emblematic of the channel’s new battle cry for more engaging media.

Among them is “24 Before,” from executive producer Jeremy Piven, which will follow a young person during the 24 hours before a life-changing event. The pilot tails a young soldier the day before he’s deployed to Iraq. “Hardin High” is an animated series in which viewer photos will stand in for the heads of the main characters.

“You have to watch to see if you’re on the day’s episode,” Curren said.

Ryan Seacrest will be the executive producer for “Jack My School,” based on a segment from the “American Idol” emcee’s morning radio show. Students will be able to request the services of the show’s host, a role not yet cast, to negotiate with their principals for changes to their schools.

Even scripted drama will keep viewers in control.

“Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is working on “Worst Day of My Life,” a show inspired by fans who have written to her about their low points.

“It all goes back to our audience being in power,” Graden said. “The experience goes from just watching to ‘What can I do?’ ”

One downside to the quirkier offerings is concern that the TV ratings will slump further. But Graden is prepared for a possible leveling off of ratings on-air but argues MTV will still come out ahead online. He cited the upside of “The Andy Milonakis Show,” a series plucked from a series of Web shorts. The show drew modest crowds on air at MTV but was renewed for a second and third season on sister network MTV2.

“The TV ratings were negligible but disproportionately wildly successful online. To me, that was sort of a harbinger of things to come,” Graden said.

But becoming a televised version of YouTube isn’t the endgame. Instead, MTV will try to be a selective curator.

The channel is so committed to the new strategy that even the future of the once-groundbreaking franchise “Laguna Beach” is in question. Gary Auerbach, executive producer of the teen docu-soap, said it was difficult to tell whether the show, MTV’s biggest launch since “Newlyweds,” would return. Whatever happens, the series will live online as the game Virtual Laguna Beach on vMTV.com, the network’s home for virtual gaming.

“The future of TV is being able to do ancillary programming like that,” Auerbach said..

At its annual upfront presentation to advertisers in New York today, Graden and company will talk up the shows in which ad executives can buy inventory. But they will be speaking loudest about its expanding presence in all those ancillary businesses.

Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, suggested that advertisers would expect MTV’s prime-time ratings to cool given the new digital strategy but added that the network could come out ahead financially by successfully bundling their businesses. “They have to be trailblazers in doing those cross-platform deals.”

And there’s still plenty of life in the TV business.

While MTV has taken lumps with its recent batch of shows, channels like the CW, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and ABC Family are slowly gaining ground with young people.

In spite of all the talk that Internet usage has cut down on TV viewing, the number of young people watching cable channels has actually shot up by double-digits in the last several years. According to Nielsen, since the 2001-02 broadcast season, cable viewing has increased 28% among 12- to 17-year-olds and 26% among 18- to 34-year-olds.

So while MTV will be scaling back on the search for mainstream hits, “We’re not going to sneeze in the face of a hit, either,” Graden said. “We’re not dismissing the importance of TV. It’s still the most powerful megaphone.”

One of the broader pushes will be “Kaya,” a scripted musical series about the challenges of a young Avril Lavigne-esque singer.

“It’s good that they’re mixing it up with some teen drama,” said Susanne Daniels, the former head of programming for the WB, who helped usher in teen shows “Dawson’s Creek” and “Gilmore Girls.” “There wasn’t as much online competition back then, so it’s a lot more challenging for MTV to get the attention of that demo between all the new channels and websites.”

Episodes of “Kaya” will jump back and forth in time, with Kaya reliving her journey to pop stardom as her present-day obstacles arise.

The show’s executive producer, Tony Krantz, said the mature-style storytelling gives it a level of authenticity that teenagers should appreciate. “Her essential conflict is between art and commerce,” Krantz said.

MTV may be at the same crossroads, but Graden says the channel will come out with the right balance. “We’ll end up with a bigger audience that is engaged longer.”


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