It's one of the more formidable assignments in television: figuring out how to appeal to a fresh generation of teenagers and twentysomethings.
Veteran executive Stephen K. Friedman was handed that responsibility Wednesday when he was promoted to president of the influential youth-oriented cable network MTV.
Friedman, 41, has served as MTV's general manager since 2008, overseeing the channel's day-to-day operations and helping to reverse the network's prolonged ratings slide. For a little more than a year, MTV has been on the march with such popular shows as "Jersey Shore," "Teen Mom" and "16 and Pregnant."
"Our team has been instrumental in using research to rethink how we approach this generation, and allowing us to let go of Generation X and really embrace the millennials," Friedman said in an interview. "MTV goes through these changes every few years, and this was an opportunity to make a profound transformation once again."
MTV's research, he said, helped the Viacom Inc.-owned channel home in on the differences in attitude between the millennial generation, which is made up of people under the age of 30, and the post-baby-boomers of Generation X. The network has also ramped up its presence on the Internet and its mobile applications because "it is critical that we are everywhere that our audience is," Friedman said.
As a result, MTV has experienced some of its best ratings in recent years for its signature award shows, including the Video Music Awards and the MTV Movie Awards. The ratings spikes reflect how Internet buzz can help expand audiences for TV shows, and how audacious and culturally relevant TV shows can spark Internet chatter and trends.
Friedman joined MTV in 1998 to launch its strategic partnerships and public affairs department. Over the years, he has been instrumental in many of MTV's social and political causes. In 2004, he helped launch mtvU, the channel dedicated to college students, and as general manager he helped craft the channel's Emmy Award-winning Sudan campaign to protest genocide in that country's Darfur region. He was deeply involved in MTV's award-winning "Fight for Your Rights" campaign and its "Choose or Lose" political drive. Before joining MTV, Friedman was director for the PEN American Center, an international writers' human rights organization.
When former MTV President Christina Norman left the network in 2008, Friedman stepped in as general manager, assuming most of her duties. Norman is now running OWN, the joint venture between Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications Inc.
Friedman's success as general manager prompted his bosses to reward him with the more expansive title of president. He will continue to report to Van Toffler, president of the MTV Networks Music and Logo Group.