MTV is retooling for the millennials:
"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."