For MTV, the situation was more than awkward.
In fall 2008, the network was bingeing on manufactured reality shows that celebrated wealth and excess just as the country was staggering into a recession. Banks were failing, people were losing their jobs and college students were facing uncertain futures. But on MTV, the glamorous clique from "The Hills" was indulging in West Hollywood shopping trips and getaways to Cabo San Lucas. And on "My Super Sweet 16," the parents of a South Carolina beauty queen spent tens of thousands of dollars to give her the perfect birthday party, complete with a baby-blue Hummer.
"We needed a total reinvention, a complete overhaul," Stephen Friedman, MTV's president, recalled. At the network since 1998, Friedman has steered many of MTV's social and political causes over the years. He assumed day-to-day management of the youth-oriented cable channel just as the economy was sinking, and cracks in the network's program strategy were becoming glaringly apparent.
The audience had shifted: The younger portion of the network's 12-to-34-year-old target audience (those who make up the millennial generation, born after 1980) exhibited different tastes and sensibilities from the post-baby boom Generation X.
MTV had failed to adapt, Friedman believed, because it hadn't done its homework. So he recruited an unlikely tutor: Nick Shore, a lanky Brit who had built a business with such offbeat assignments as probing the psychology of pain and figuring out the essence of Princess Diana.
A mirror of American youth culture for three decades, MTV has to recalibrate regularly to keep pace with the zeitgeist. From round-the-clock music videos, to reality TV pioneer "The Real World," to the heh-heh-heh of "Beavis and Butt-Head," and the gotcha of "Punk'd," MTV continually pulls from its programming grab bag, most recently making headlines with "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom."
Now the chameleon network is at it again, launching a slate of scripted shows kicked off by "Awkward," its latest hit, a smart, sweet half-hour comedy that would not have stumbled onto MTV's schedule three years ago. Early signs are good, as prime-time ratings have climbed by 50% from two years ago.
"This was a real opportunity to transform MTV once again," Friedman said. "But we needed to let go of Generation X so we could own the millennials."
The retooling czar
The Providence restaurant in midtown Manhattan is dark and moody. Vaulted hardwood ceilings frame what was a Baptist church nearly a century ago. By the 1970s, the space had been turned into a famed recording studio.
But on a drizzly Friday last spring, the Providence was jammed with 20- and 30-something MTV programming executives, casting agents, researchers and producers, brought together for "M-Day" or Millennial Day. It was a social research field trip for the staff, created by Shore, who joined MTV in November 2009 to facilitate the network's programming transformation.
Shore, 45, got his start in London ad agencies and then spent 15 years as a marketing consultant in New York, with clients including Coca-Cola, Motorola and Frito-Lay. He once interviewed a half-dozen dominatrixes to help Johnson & Johnson better understand the psychology of pain to market its pain relievers. For Coke, he was charged with defining the qualities of an icon. Lady Diana Spencer had it all: the hair, the vulnerability and the pithy nickname, "Princess Di."
Retooling "something so rich and juicy and iconic as MTV" presented the "ultimate branding challenge," said Shore, MTV's senior vice president, strategic insights and research.
Other TV networks, including ABC Family and CW, had been quicker to recognize the tastes of the millennial generation. Shows including ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager" were clicking with young viewers in 2008 and 2009 as MTV's ratings were plunging. MTV faced turf incursions from all sides as the Internet, cellphones and video games commanded more of young adults' time and focus.
Shore's strategy has been to bombard MTV executives with interesting nuggets of information. He and his 32-member staff lob research notes about millennials called "M-Bombs," and occasionally stage M-Days.
On this day, six young women from around the country were brought to New York to share their life stories with MTV. Each represented a different archetype: the creator, expressing who she is; the seeker, searching for her place in the world; the lover, navigating relationships; the soloist, craving a sense of belonging; the magician, seeking personal power; and the master, striving for control in her life.
A radiant young woman with brown curls and an easy smile who lives in Seattle, labeled "the creator," explained that her parents, a white mother and black father, divorced when she was an infant. She had little contact with her father and was confused about her identity. Black friends told her that she wasn't "black enough." But she found comfort watching "The Cosby Show."
"I don't feel like there are many characters on television that I can relate to," she said.
Another 23-year-old from Seattle talked about her troubled teen years and how foster parents locked her in an attic. A woman from Georgia explained how she struggled to square her life with the teachings of her church. Most striking about the speakers was their lack of inhibition discussing deeply personal experiences.
Millennials were the first to grow up with the Internet, a powerful platform for expression, and they have no qualms about putting it all out for the world to see.
"There is a very high premium on self-expression," said Shore, who has two teenage daughters. "This generation … can curate their identity through their Facebook profiles and present the best version of themselves to the world."
The goal of "M-Day" was to get a glimpse into the women's "strategies for dealing with life," said Stacey Matthias, co-chief executive of Insight Research, which selected the women for MTV.
"We want to understand our audience better to help us draw better characters," Shore said.
Keeping it real
"Life amplified," is MTV's current slogan. The network is in pursuit of stories that reveal and explore characters' vulnerabilities. Authenticity, Shore and others say, is a critical component.
"About the biggest put-down in the millennial world is to call someone fake," said Carol Phillips, president of Brand Amplitude, a Michigan consulting firm. "They want to see experiences that feel real."
Snarkiness, the currency of Generation X, doesn't carry the same appeal, partly, the researchers said, because millennials experienced a less hierarchical upbringing than did Gen Xers. Parents of millennials assumed the role of life coach or friend, a phenomenon called "peerenting."
"Millennials come from families that are more democratic and worlds spin around the kids," Shore said. "This has created kids who have a sense of power, a sense of voice and kids who need to be listened to."
MTV already was overhauling its programming in 2009 when Shore came on board. That summer it had launched "16 and Pregnant" and in December it added "Teen Mom" and "Jersey Shore," two gritty reality shows that were a dramatic pivot from the sun-drenched escapism of "The Hills." The series reversed MTV's ratings slide and landed the network back on the cultural map.
"Jersey Shore," with its over-the-top partying and fighting, is partly a story about the search for love and acceptance — eternal themes for youth. And the show even gives an occasional shout-out to the unit most important to millennials: their families.
"The characters themselves have become something of a family, and their moms and dads have been part of the show," said Van Toffler, president of the MTV Networks Music and Logo Group. "Before our evolution you would not have seen parents on MTV."
Now MTV is rolling out a new slate of shows, both scripted and reality, that hopes to speak to millennials in their own language. While it fell short with "Skins" and "The Hard Times of R.J. Berger," MTV scored with "Awkward," which debuted in July. MTV's millennial mantra that "smart and funny is the new rock and roll" applies to the irreverent comedy. "Awkward" centers on 15-year-old Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), a witty nerd who is invisible at school until a freak accident, which everyone assumes is a suicide attempt (it wasn't), makes her suddenly notorious.
While writing the show, "Awkward" creator Lauren Iungerich, a member of Generation X, put together her own focus group at her former high school in Palos Verdes. She and her writing staff spent a day interviewing students.
"We asked them everything, about sex and relationships, and we picked up their slang," Iungerich said. "What fascinated me was the kids spent an hour-and-a-half talking about their mothers. They often feel they are competing with them. Their mothers are trying to stay youthful and even wear the same size of clothes."
In the show, two mean girls snap a cellphone photo of Jenna getting undressed in the locker room. They text a shot of Jenna and her exposed breast to the entire school. Her youthful mother tries to help by suggesting Jenna get a boob job, which she doesn't want.
"I wanted the show to be true to the kids and what they are going through," Iungerich said.
The quest for genuine voices is seeping into new reality offerings too. On Oct. 11, MTV launches a documentary-styled program, "Chelsea Settles." The show's 23-year-old heroine, Chelsea Settles, struggles with a tough decision: stay in small-town Pennsylvania with her seriously ill mother or move to Los Angeles to work in the fashion industry.
Unlike the rail-thin blonds who populated MTV three years ago, Settles is black and weighs 324 pounds.
Two scripted shows scheduled for next year revolve around millennial themes. The Doug Liman-produced "I Just Want My Pants Back" is about a group of 20-somethings in Brooklyn navigating relationships, based on a novel by David J. Rosen. And MTV will introduce "Underemployed," a comedic stab at one of the biggest challenges facing young adults: overcoming the weak economy.
Along with helping MTV find a new pop-cultural relevancy, the focus on what Shore calls "radical audience intimacy" is paying dividends. The network just ended its seventh consecutive quarter of year-to-year ratings growth. According to the Nielsen Co., nearly 1.2-million people on average watched MTV during prime time in 2011. "Awkward" has had an average of 1.9 million viewers its first season, and the network says it is watched online (in full or clips) 1.4 million times a week.
"We want the audience to be our muse," said Shore. "When we get that right and become a reflection of our audience, then that's when MTV is at its best."