MTV hopes ‘Hard Times’ will end hard times for its ratings

Can a well-endowed teen make young people hot for MTV again?

The music network, seeking to stem a years-long ratings slide, thinks it has found just the thing to get back on track: “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” a scripted comedy about a boy with an, um, anatomical “gift.” Billed as a cross between “The Wonder Years” and the R-rated comedy “Superbad,” the show is a raunchy coming-of-age tale about a nerdy teen who achieves notoriety among his high school peers when they discover that he has a rather large penis.

“Hard Times” marks a break from MTV’s strict diet of reality TV, the genre that has dominated the channel in recent years. Although the channel pioneered the format with shows such as “The Real World,” and even while the party-hopping Italian Americans of “Jersey Shore” have made it a sleeper hit, MTV needs to reinvent itself once more, according to industry executives. A naughty comedy could be a step in the right direction.

“Having lived on a smorgasbord of reality TV, they can’t just serve up Jell-O. It has to be spicy,” said Brent Poer, managing director of the West Coast offices of the ad-buying firm MediaVest. “It has to make viewers sit up and say, ‘There goes MTV, breaking all the rules.’ ”

But if controversy is what it will take for MTV to regain momentum, it may need a big dollop of it. Overall primetime viewership has sunk 39% over the last five years among the channel’s core 12- to 34-year-old viewers, and its average rating at 10 p.m. -- when MTV premieres new episodes of its shows -- fell 18% to 801,000 viewers in 2009 from the year prior.

Meanwhile, audiences seem to be tiring of its longtime hit “The Hills,” about the charmed, semi-staged life of Southland native Lauren Conrad, which launched back in 2006. Viewers fled last year after its star left the show. Dozens of other low-budget reality shows have come -- and gone -- without notice.

As a result of the audience erosion, MTV is no longer a must-buy for advertisers seeking young audiences, said Carrie Drinkwater, senior vice president and group account director at the ad-buying firm MPG.

“People still flip on MTV to see what’s on. The brand still has that pull, " Drinkwater said. But “they don’t have the cachet they used to with advertisers. Now there are countless other ways to reach young people, particularly with the Web and gaming.”

The ratings and revenue decline -- advertising brought in $820 million in 2009, down nearly 20% from 2006 figures, according to research firm SNL Kagan -- hasn’t gone unnoticed by MTV’s bosses at media giant Viacom Inc., which also owns the Paramount film studio. MTV is one of the crown jewels among Viacom’s juggernaut cable networks, which also include Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon, and accounted for 62% of the company’s revenue in the first nine months of last year.

Viacom CEO Chief Executive Philippe Dauman acknowledged MTV’s struggles in the media throughout last year. At a Goldman Sachs media conference in September he outlined a plan to rebuild the channel by investing in more costly programming -- live-action shows, animated series and original movies -- to build on its stable of reality shows.

“Hard Times” is the capstone of two years of development efforts by MTV General Manager Stephen Friedman, an MTV Networks veteran who was promoted to the channel’s top post in 2008. “For me, [the show] speaks to where we need to go as a network,” he said. “It’s smart, refreshingly candid and really captures what our audience wants: a nuanced, multilayered portrayal of their lives.”

Series co-creator Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the best-selling “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” said the hook may be brash, but like HBO’s similarly premised “Hung,” “it’s not a show about his penis. Episodes 2 and 3 have nothing to do with his penis.”

Reality shows won’t disappear from MTV any time soon, but MTV now also has about 20 scripted shows in development. They include a U.S. version of the gritty British teen drama “Skins,” a series from producer Tommy Lynch titled “Normal” that is centered on a teen who inadvertently becomes a drug dealer when he tries to overcome addiction to prescription drugs, and a “Groundhog Day"-style show executive produced by Emma Roberts as a girl forced to relive the day before she turns 16.

“Hard Times” will air during summer, MTV’s peak season, coupled with another high-profile launch: “Warren the Ape,” which revives pompous, drunk, D-list celebrity puppet Warren “The Ape” Demontague; the foul-mouthed character first appeared on the 2002 Fox series “Greg the Bunny.”

“Getting into scripted shows is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Tony DiSanto, MTV’s programming chief. “The key to MTV’s success is not getting too homogenized and moving too much in one direction.”

To shepherd the new areas of development, Friedman and DiSanto enlisted veteran TV executive David Janollari, who will head up scripted development in Los Angeles; Brent Haynes, who will run comedy and animation; and Steve Tseckares and James Bolosh, who will develop “pop culture programming,” studio-based shows and series for music artists.

“Reinvention for us is necessary,” Friedman said. “It’s critical we let go of audiences as they age up. The millennial audience is savvier than ever, so they have higher expectations for what they consume.”

Still, even the stars of “Hard Times” doubted whether MTV could pull off a frank and explicit comedy about a hormonal teen.

“I remember having some skepticism. I wasn’t sure how they were going to handle such aggressive material,” said Paul Iacono, 21, who plays RJ. “But . . . I think ‘Hard Times’ could be what ‘Weeds’ was for Showtime. That sort of first ambitious step forward.” (“Weeds,” about a suburban soccer mom who turns to dealing pot to support her family, helped put Showtime back on the programming map after years of running distantly behind HBO.)

The idea for “Hard Times” was hatched three years ago by Grahame-Smith and producer David Katzenberg, who together produced the short film the show was based on, “The Tale of RJ,” as well as “Clark and Michael,” the CBS Web series starring Michael Cera.

“For all the raunchy jokes and sexually explicit situations RJ finds himself in, we actually do try to have him do the right thing,” Grahame-Smith said. “It’s just a noisy way to do a story about growing up.”

And the kind of racy content featured in “Hard Times” -- there will be bleeped out swearing on the show, and the first episode opens with RJ trying to relieve himself when his mother walks in -- is rapidly becoming more at home on prime time. CW executives were only too happy to push a “Gossip Girl” story line about a threesome among its college-aged characters, and two years ago, the network’s “90210" featured a graphic sex scene between teens in the first 10 minutes of the premiere episode.

“Part of staying relevant is being talked about,” MediaVest’s Poer said. “If you’re not creating controversy, you risk not getting noticed at all.”