MTV Mines the Past for Its Future: ‘Total Request Live’

MTV Mines the Past for Its Future: ‘Total Request Live’

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“If we’re going to come back and reinvent MTV, the studio is a given,” he said. “It is the centerpiece.”

It is also the centerpiece in what Mr. McCarthy believes is the beginning of MTV’s comeback. Though many observers say that is a long shot, there have been encouraging signs in recent weeks.

Ratings for MTV’s core audience — 18- to 34-year-olds — went up in June and July, the first time the network has experienced back-to-back months of ratings growth in four years.

So far, those gains have come courtesy of re-engineered reality shows like “Fear Factor” and “Wild ’n Out,” a sketch comedy show.

A new slate shepherded by Mr. McCarthy will have live shows (including “TRL” and late-night programs) and familiar-looking reality fare, including a show reminiscent of “Laguna Beach” called “Siesta Key,” which premieres Monday.

Jennifer Lopez on “TRL” with its host, Carson Daly, in 2004.

Credit
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

The latest strategic pivot at MTV is vital to the fortunes of Viacom, which also owns other cable channels like Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

The company, which has experienced a chaotic year and a half, has tried to stabilize itself with a strategy targeting six core cable channels, MTV included. Viacom was also in the hunt to buy Scripps, the company that owns networks like HGTV and Food Network, before pulling out of the negotiations late last week.

But no matter what, it’s going to be an uphill climb.

Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson Research, said MTV had several challenges, including a fickle audience that is preoccupied with social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

“Looking at it month to month, week to week, you could see some early winds, but there’s heavy skepticism of a multiyear recovery,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy, who oversaw turnaround projects at MTV’s sister cable channels VH1, Logo and MTV2, is not lacking in confidence, saying that he and his team have already “totally turned the business around after five years of decline.”

“I see that math, I see the shows we are about to green-light, I see that landscape for the next few months — we’re stable,” he said. “How do I know that? I could be wrong, but I haven’t missed an estimate in the 12 years I’ve been doing TV.”

Robert Bakish, Viacom’s chief executive, said he was heartened by MTV’s recent results and credited Mr. McCarthy, who took over in late 2016.

“When Chris got in, he analyzed the situation, we talked about it and he quickly arrived at the conclusion that the programming direction was wrong,” Mr. Bakish said. “He reset the brand filter, cleaned out the pipeline and began building a new MTV that’s much more based on reality, unscripted and music content.”

There have been many strategic shifts at the network in the last five years: heavy investments in scripted programming, a hiring spree for MTV News, and a seemingly endless stream of dark and dreary reality series.

When Mr. McCarthy came aboard, he quickly killed more than 100 projects in development.

He regarded the decision in 2015 to pour resources into MTV News — which hired, among others, several prominent journalists from Bill Simmons’s old website, Grantland — as misaligned with the network’s mission and pulled the plug.

“MTV at its best — whether it’s news, whether it’s a show, whether it’s a docu-series — is about amplifying young people’s voices,” he said. “We put young people on the screen, and we let the world hear their voices. We shouldn’t be writing 6,000-word articles on telling people how to feel.”

Snoop Dogg performing at the finale of “TRL” in MTV’s Times Square studio in November 2008. The network plans to revive the show in October.

Credit
Michael Nagle for The New York Times

Mr. McCarthy also incorporated TV into the annual movie awards and made the acting categories gender neutral. Likewise, when the Video Music Awards are handed out next month, winners will walk away with a trophy that will now be called the Moon Person — not the Moonman.

“Why should it be a man?” Mr. McCarthy said. “It could be a man, it could be a woman, it could be transgender, it could be nonconformist.”

Mr. McCarthy is also developing a show called “We Are They,” a seemingly by-the-numbers reality show that will focus on young people’s coming-of-age moments (going to college, first relationships) with a twist that all of those featured will be gender-nonconforming.

Whether these moves come off as pandering or connect with young people remains to be seen.

Then in October, MTV will unveil the revival of “TRL.” The original iteration — which featured a countdown of music videos, a studio audience and frequent appearances from star musicians — was, in a way, a throwback itself, an updated version of “American Bandstand.”

The newer version of “TRL” will initially run an hour a day, and Mr. McCarthy said that might grow to two to three hours a day as the show developed. (There will also be unique daily content for Instagram, Snapchat and other social media channels.)

MTV is hoping the “TRL” name is enough of a star. Mr. Daly will not return as host, and the network instead will rely on five co-hosts who are relatively unknown, including DC Young Fly, a rapper and comedian, and Erik Zachary, a Chicago radio host.

Mr. McCarthy hopes that the pedestrian plaza outside the Times Square studio will be open to concerts, along with an alleyway behind the Viacom building.

Charlie Walk, the president of Republic Records, which has musicians like Drake and Lorde on its talent roster, said that in recent years MTV had abandoned the music business and that bringing “TRL” back was a big step in the right direction.

“Who’s not going to support a platform that’s covering all of the buckets of social media and cable to allow your artist to go on, play a video, perform a song and to talk about their new music that just got released?” he said. “How do you say no to that? We’re going to give it a shot, a big shot.”

There will be plenty, of course, who roll their eyes.

Mr. McCarthy does not care.

“It’s the right route,” he said. “When you talk to artists and they say to you, unaware of what we’re doing, can you bring back ‘TRL’? We’d be crazy not to reinvent that.”

“MTV’s reinvention,” he continued, “is coming by harnessing its heritage.”

At least, that’s the latest game plan.

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