MTV Operating without a net
Cable's most unorthodox programming strategy thrives by taking chances
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/26/2002 8:00:00 PM
Pondering a new game show last year, MTV staffers piled into a conference room and took their positions. At this point at other networks, a tape would roll, and the decision makers would screen a few pilot episodes. At MTV, though, the executives were joined by Stryker, a personality at rock bastion KROQ-FM Los Angeles, who, with the help of some other MTVers, performed a live, mock version of a genre-twisting game show called Who Knows the Band?
It debuted in the fall.
You've stepped inside the MTV development lab. Of all the cable networks', its program-development process is, perhaps not surprisingly, the most unconventional. Want proof? The Osbournes, the big MTV hit, was born out of appearances on Cribs, MTV's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous knock-off, in which the rocker and his family were first featured.
In a busy year, most basic-cable networks might greenlight just five pilots, putting two or three on the air as regular series. A broadcast network might make 20 pilots. MTV moves at lightning speed, pumping out 50 potential projects. The mantra, quite simply, is that more is more.
It's determined to stay a teenager forever, even if it is turning 21 this summer. Its programmers are encouraged to think like their fickle, finicky teenage audience. "We don't have the luxury of running a Seinfeld or Cosby Show for a decade," said Van Toffler, president of MTV and MTV2. "Our audience demands us to be on the edge." Or over it.
Viacom's MTV will spend $236 million on programming this year—27% of its total revenue, according to Kagan World Media. Cable heavyweights like Lifetime, TNT, TBS and ESPN spend more, but their programming expenses account for 35% to 50% of their revenue.
MTV's costs depend on the show, of course. A game or in-studio show could run as low as $50,000 per episode. Reality shows come in slightly higher, around $200,000 to $300,000. A scripted drama or a reality/scripted hybrid could run $1 million per episode.
The Osbournes' first season now looks like a bargain. MTV spent about $200,000 total for the show. The Osbournes and MTV are still trying to hammer out a deal to bring the show back. The two-season deal in the works may pay the family $20 million.
There could be an option for a third year, but MTV audiences can flee quickly. "The 21-year-old of today does not like the same thing as the 21-year old of last year," said President of Entertainment Brian Graden, the programming wunderkind who recently added VH1 programming to his duties.
"They are expert at reinventing themselves," said Zenith Media's Roy Rothstein. "When you're programming for 18- to 24-year-olds, you have to refresh and make bold moves."
It's also about balance. When the pop phenomenon à la 'NSYNC and Britney Spears was just beginning to blast sky high, Total Request Live looked like programming gold. But Graden wanted a "less saccharine" show for nighttime. So he introduced Tom Green. "It's a constant dance," he said, "to make sure you never become overshadowed by any one show or one franchise."
When an idea makes the cut, MTV moves fast. A new series could be on the air just months after the first pitch meeting. Focus groups, marketing, promotion—who has time? MTV never even advertised The Osbournes , which now reigns as one of basic cable's highest-rated original series ever.
Development flows both internally and from the outside. About half of MTV's projects come from outside producers. Sometimes MTV signs up rookie producers, "the guy under a rock reading comic books," observed Toffler. Or established talent like Ben Stiller or Adam Sandler.
Director Spike Jones called President MTV Networks Music Group Judy McGrath to get her to watch tapes of an unknown Johnny Knoxville and kick-started another MTV hit, Jackass.
"We let people with an idea go ahead and make television," Toffler explained, "instead of having a team of writers and show runners reshape their idea."
McGrath recalls comedian Tom Green's coming into the office and shaving himself in front of Graden. "We said, 'OK, you can have a show.'"
Some shows flop or burn out fast. Animation worked with Beavis & Butt-head, but another animated series, Spy Groove, flopped. Controversial but popular Jackass was a one-season wonder. An idea for a sock-puppet show never took hold.
Even the best MTV shows usually don't last more than two or three seasons. The Real World is the exception, largely because every element, from location to cast, changes. "By definition," said Graden, "when you're casting new 21-year-olds every year, the characters aren't even allowed to grow older."
Producers say MTV jumps for projects other networks would never touch.
"There's more willingness to be brave and bold. You don't have to dumb down your idea to appeal to a wider audience," said Jon Murray, who produces Real World and RoadRules with his partner Mary-Ellis Bunim.
MTV gives producers an unusual amount of creative space, said veteran outside producer Allison Grodner, responsible for CBS's Big Brother and MTV's reality/drama hybrid Flipped. "A lot of networks would have wanted to see a lot on paper, have back and forth meetings, and see dailies."
MTV can, however, be the possessive partner that most producers dread. The network tries hard to nab rights to an idea, preferring to contract producers as freelancers. (Plenty of budding producers in Los Angeles and New York claim to be MTV producers but are roving freelancers.)
"Sometimes it can take longer to do the deal than to make the show," said Real World producer Murray.
When MTV owns a show, it controls domestic and international play, and most of the proceeds stay in MTV coffers. Some shows, like an animated version of Spider-Man slated for a winter debut, have to be licensed. When the rights get too pricey, MTV is willing to license, Graden said.
The network's internal development resembles a system of farm teams. There are eight development groups under Graden, including reality, news and documentary, and music-related groups. Ideas flow among them; the music group produces The Osbournes , but Cribs, where the family was "discovered," is from MTV's news and documentary group. Each team, staffed with four to 14 people, gets a development allowance. Some, like the scripted and documentaries groups, naturally command a bigger allowance, but all have the freedom to buy and develop projects.
"I don't want the developers worrying about pleasing Brian Graden. They are on the line for the audience, not me," said Graden.
He never wants his staff to imitate its own hits. Despite The Osbournes' success, he insists he won't make another series about an aging rocker and his family..
That doesn't mean The Osbournes won't inspire new up-close shows with stars—say, a series following P. Diddy as he searches for a new musical star (MTV won't comment).
Not every new project needs—or gets—a pilot. "You can blow $10 million on 10 pilots or on 100," Graden said. "We might work through 200 'noodles' a year" on the way to 15 or 20 new shows.
Live presentations give developers a low-cost picture of a show. "Of course, you'd build a set and add graphics later. But, if the meat of an idea is there, we know it," said Senior Vice President of Music Development Lois Curren, who supervised The Osbournes.
Sometimes they just wing it. Former MTV executive and current USA Network President Doug Herzog recalls working on the first Real World season in 1992. "We took Super 8 cameras and filmed kids in a loft for three days around Thanksgiving." Producers did something similar for The Osbournes.
MTV orders fewer episodes than other networks, and its seasons are shorter. The Osbournes' did 10 weeks of episodes; NBC's Friends does nearly two dozen.
There are no theme nights, no nights for original dramas. The two "appointment" spots are TRL on weekdays at 3:30 p.m. ET and the "10 spot," which has become a horizontal block for popular originals like The Real World. Other than that, MTV is intentionally slapdash. Shows play at different times several days a week, in attempt to reach different viewers.
"For them to imitate the structure of a traditional network would be negative," said Lifetime's head of research and TV historian Tim Brooks. "That would remind teens that the network is really run by grown-ups."
A new batch of originals is being readied for launch. But there's no rest for an MTV developer, especially with a programming retreat next month.
"It's like seeing people prepare their master's thesis," said McGrath. "You need to be reading the tea leaves of the culture."
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