MTV News plays it straight: Choose or lose. "The President works for them. If they don't exercise their voice, it goes unheard," says Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president of news and productions. With the 2004 election fast approaching and the candidates in a neck-and-neck race, MTV News is determined to spread its message: Politics matter. The economy, the war in Iraq, and rising gas prices affect young voters. Intensely.
But will they listen?
Voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was highest in 1972, when the voting age dropped from 21 to 18. In that historic year, 12.2 million young people cast ballots. In 2000, just 8.6 million in the age group went to the polls. Statistically speaking, that's pathetic. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 29 million Americans 18-24. (Some 105 million voted in the Gore v. Bush battle.)
MTV isn't fazed.
In the 2000 election, 18 million voters in MTV's core category—18-30—voted. This year, the channel hopes to rally 20 million, nearly half the 43 million in that key demo.
Cue MTV News' Choose or Lose: 20 Million Loud campaign. The efforts include specials on candidates and issues, and public-service announcements (PSAs). Plus, the network sponsors off-air initiatives, such as voter registration and local youth gatherings to dish on issues. Of course, it helps that MTV is one of the most watched cable networks for younger viewers. That gives Choose or Lose a strong platform for disseminating its messages; plugs on Total Request Live don't hurt.
"We're trying to inform," says Sirulnick, "but we're also encouraging action." And in the hippest way possible. The slick, fast-paced MTV News productions move rapid-fire through issues. The specials survey young people's opinions and pose questions culled from viewer e-mails and polls.
Recent Choose or Lose
shows have included an interview with presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, as well as a spotlight on the economy and jobs and on the war in Iraq. Choose or Lose: Work It, which featured TV news legend Walter Cronkite, attracted a stunning 5 million viewers, and the Kerry interview nabbed 3.4 million. (In May, MTV averaged 1.1. million viewers in prime time.)
Heading into fall, MTV News plans nine more specials. It has also requested interviews with President Bush and his twin daughters.
The first Choose or Lose campaign kicked off with the 1992 election, as MTV News branched out from pop culture and music news to topics like AIDS, homelessness, and politics. "The angle was based strictly on young people," says Sirulnick, who has worked on Choose or Lose
since its inception. That year, then-candidate Bill Clinton appeared on MTV eight times.
In the 1996 election, MTV added a campaign bus, complete with editing systems and interview space, which crisscrossed the country all year. Clinton, Sen. Bob Dole, and Ross Perot came aboard. So did Monica Lewinsky when the bus stopped at the White House to greet interns.
Four years later, four reporters were dispatched to cover the election with hand-held cameras. They included Gideon Yago, a current MTV News star, and Jason Bellini, now a CNN correspondent. This year, the audience may be growing. Youth organizations are predicting an uptick in turnout. "They are fighting the war, graduating from college, and sometimes having to move home because they can't find a job. They are twice as likely to be uninsured," says Rock the Vote Communication Director Jay Strell. "They feel the connection this time."
MTV isn't alone in young-voter outreach.
The WWF's Smackdown the Vote
initiative to register young voters will hit 39 states by September. MTV's longtime partner Rock the Vote launched a 50-city bus tour last week with concerts and voter-registration events. Rock
aims to register 1 million voters before the election; thus far, more than 300,000 have signed up. Through a partnership with Time Warner, Rock the Vote PSAs air on The WB. Last year, the creators of The West Wing even wrote the organization into an episode of the NBC drama.
But 2004 may be a turning point.
"The energy is in the air everywhere we go," says Sirulnick. "Young people having opinions is higher than I've experienced before. It is much more heated and ripe."