MTV Upfront: MoreThan 'Skins' Deep

Sponsors reject controversial show, but network is still a must-buy to reach young viewers
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MTV might be having trouble getting national advertisers to sponsor its new series Skins, but it shouldn’t have trouble drawing the 1,000 media buyers and clients it expects for its upfront presentation Feb. 2 at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, where Bruno Mars will provide the music.

A certain amount of controversy has always been part of the MTV brand. Furor surrounded long-running shows like Beavis & Butt-head and Jackass. And a little more than a year ago, Domino’s Pizza and American Family Insurance pulled out of Jersey Shore. Now that series has been picked up for season four, which will be set in Italy. Snooki and friends draw some of MTV’s highest ratings ever, and the show is Exhibit A in proving that in the Internet age, MTV is still relevant to the youth of America.

That means that even while advertisers treat Skins as if it’s radioactive, MTV remains a must-buy for marketers looking to target younger consumers.

“With the MTV networks, and in particular MTV, there’s a lot of demand. And when you are trying to target the 15-to-25 market, there aren’t many networks that deliver the way that an MTV does,” said Jay Langan, executive VP of California-based media buyer Ocean Media.

After the premiere episode of Skins, advertisers including Pizza Hut, General Motors, H&R Block, Schick, Subway and Wrigley pulled out of the show, leaving only movie companies, Red Bull and remedies for zits and stretch marks as sponsors. But it’s important to note that most of those marketers moved their ad dollars to other MTV shows.

“It does not necessarily reflect the whole network,” said Francois Lee, VP/activation director at MediaVest, agency for many large advertisers. Lee plans on going to the upfront to hear about MTV’s programming strategy. “It is very hard to roll out long-term programming [plans] because that young audience is more fickle and their habits and tastes could change,” said Lee, who likes that MTV is adding scripted shows to its reality hits.

Powered by the success of Jersey Shore, MTV’s ratings among its core 12-to-34-year-old audience climbed 15% last year and 21% in the fourth quarter. That helped power parent company Viacom to accelerating domestic ad sales growth and ad prices in the scatter market that were more than 20% higher than in last year’s upfront, according to analysts, who expect 2011 to bring more of the same.

“With a blockbuster opening to Jersey Shore’s fourth season in the first quarter of 2011, all but ensuring success this year, media buyers indicated to us that should MTV be able to launch more mainstream scripted fare, it would have a much easier time carrying its momentum into 2012 and beyond,” David Bank, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said in a recent report.

This year’s upfront presentation will be led by Jeff Lucas, who had been executive VP in charge of MTV Networks’ entertainment networks before adding its music networks to his portfolio in December. Sean Moran, who had been in charge of ad sales for the music channels, was given a new role that has not been publicly defined, and the sales heads of the music channels’ New York, Chicago and Los Angeles offices were dismissed.

MTV will be presenting research about the power of the Millennial generation and the network’s connection to it. It plans to send that message through the people who appear in its programs. Members of the cast of Jersey Shore, My Life as Liz and Teen Mom will speak. along with the young actors from the network’s new wave of scripted shows, including Teen Wolf, Good Vibes and even Skins.

Despite lower ratings for its second episode and the advertiser pull-out, as of last week, MTV said it was standing by Skins. Viewership remained higher than expected and is comparable to other teen dramas, so there were no plans to cancel the series or change its time period.

And if young people watch, advertisers will come, especially at bargain prices. “There are so many advertisers out there that need impressions,” said Don Seaman, VP at media agency MPG. “There are some very big advertisers that wouldn’t want to be in [Skins], but there’s always someone that’s going to be out there.”

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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