MTV President Unveils Scripted Slate and Explains His New Approach

Chris McCarthy talks with THR about turning 'Scream' into an anthology and the Viacom cabler's evolving approach to scripted.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Chris McCarthy

Nine months into his role as MTV's third president in as many years, Chris McCarthy is unveiling the Viacom cable network's scripted plans. And like his largely new unscripted slate, McCarthy is leaning hard into stories that speak to youth culture and coming-of-age for a new generation.

In addition to hopes for reviving Teen Wolf — now in its final season — McCarthy greenlighted an untitled four-hour Faith Evans miniseries and is developing comedic drama Calabasas, from exec producer Queen Latifah. On the returning front, Scream will officially turn into an anthology ahead of its third-season reboot in March with a new cast — including Tyga and C.J. Wallace — and setting. In addition to a rebooted Teen Wolf, which is in its early stages now and not expected for at least a year after the current storyline ends this summer, McCarthy is teaming with showrunner Jeff Davis for a female-driven take on War of the Worlds.

To hear McCarthy tell it, his plan is to have a scripted tentpole in every quarter, whether that's a TV movie, miniseries or ongoing drama/anthology as he takes a more nuanced approach to the genre.

"MTV was born and lives in youth culture…and we're at our best when we amplify voices and celebrate them and do that through the filter of music and unique coming-of-age stories," says McCarthy, who also oversees VH1 and Logo and is MTV's third president in as many years. "MTV is in a great space on the unscripted side and we have the ability to take our time picking stories. I'd like to have one scripted event a quarter but if we don't get there, I won't beat ourselves up next year."

The slate comes as many industry observers believed MTV was exiting the scripted space after McCarthy canceled three rookie shows, including little-seen critical darling Sweet/Vicious, and saw The Shannara Chronicles move to Spike as part of Viacom's realignment.

Instead, McCarthy has put in development Calabasas, an hourlong comedic drama exploring the intersection of celebrity, music, sports and young Hollywood that has attracted the likes of Justin Bieber and Khloe Kardashian. (Bieber may be a character.) Latifah's and Shakim Compere's Flavor Unit Entertainment exec produces the drama, which is being written by Lamar Damon (Bunheads) and Celine Geiger (The Vampire Diaries).

The untitled Evans mini follows the young aspiring singer who met and fell in love with Notorious BIG along the way. Evans produces alongside Monami Entertainment's Mona Scott-Young with Nicole Jefferson Asher penning the script.

Below, McCarthy talks with THR about MTV's new approach to scripted.

What's MTV's new scripted strategy?

The strategy for the whole brand has been re-elevated, re-pivoted back to youth culture. Scripted is a component of that and it's going to complement what we're doing in the unscripted space and in the live space. In a very unique way, ending and starting on Teen Wolf feels like it's a pivotal moment for us. Teen Wolf was a seminal moment of scripted for us. What Teen Wolf really is about is coming of age. It's about a dual identity and the struggle that every young person goes through as they come to terms with their adolescence, young adulthood and struggling with different identities. That has never been more present than today than when we see kids having dual social lives and dual identities and dual social feeds.

With Teen Wolf ending and Shannara Chronicles moving to Spike, it seemed like MTV was out of the scripted business. What's the new scripted push to the creative community?

Our pitch is the same for scripted and unscripted. We are interested in telling amazing, compelling stories of coming-of- age that celebrate the power of young people. I have never in my career ever had a quota on any particular drama or genre or type because quite honestly, you don't know.

You're evolving Teen Wolf with the hopes of bringing the series back with a possibly new class. How does that fit in with your larger scripted plans?

We're looking at everything like, how do we elevate the amazing stuff that we have, not just look to create new stuff? Because in many ways there's a lot more fun and interesting stories to be told when we push ourselves to reinvent this thing as well as create new [programming].

Freeform's strategy is to target what it calls "becomers" — young people experiencing firsts like love and jobs. How does MTV's approach differ?

First and foremost, MTV was born and lives in youth culture. When it gets exciting and a little scary is when we shed everything we know to say goodbye to a generation and then begin to understand and welcome in a whole new generation. That is where MTV lives and breathes and succeeds and thrives. We are at our best when we amplify their voices and when we celebrate them and when we do it through the filter of music and unique coming-of-age stories. So the untitled Faith Evans project, that's a uniquely MTV story. We know Faith today as one of the most well-known, respected, strong women who came out of the rise of hip-hop through its pinnacle decade and being in a relationship with one of the biggest hip-hop artists of all time [Notorious BIG]. That is the story of Faith Evans. But Faith Evans is a young woman who wanted to fulfill her dream and turn her life into something different and along the way she fell in love, just like many young people do. And the story about an outsider making it in a world dominated by men, and falling in love along the way, that is a uniquely MTV story. And MTV was there for all of that as a witness to it. And now we have the pleasure of being able to partner with Faith and tell that story to a whole new generation.  

In success, what's the balance between scripted and unscripted you're looking for in say, a year from now?

MTV is at its best when it's a youth culture brand and we have to elevate outside of any particular platform. So that's what live allows us to do. We're going to be live starting in the fall and we'll build up several hours a day live on linear. For every one of those hours that we create though on linear, we'll be creating an additional hour off linear all in shortform and mobile. If we were to launch MTV today, that is what it would be because kids spend two-thirds of their waking hours on content. That is double what it was 10 years ago. It's just not TV anymore, it's all platforms. Live will increasingly become more important to us.

Reality and unscripted has always been a unique and amazing pillar for MTV. That is where we have been pioneers in that space, everything from The Real World to things like Catfish. With scripted, I'd love to be in a place where we can have a scripted event once a quarter where we can create amazing, compelling stories with great partners that are stories that haven't been told. For example, we all know the story of Biggie but we have never heard Faith's side of the story and we have never heard her side of it and actually seen it through her eyes. We don't have a quota or a number around it. I'd love to do a tentpole scripted event every quarter.

Is that four scripted shows per year? Drama? Comedy?

We want to have big events each quarter. I don't know that I would say that we'd box it into a series a quarter because it may be a movie, a miniseries or an event. Like Teen Wolf, when we looked to reinvent Teen Wolf, that's a different kind of story and one that we love and own so we want to do that in a way that [showrunner] Jeff [Davis] would want to do it appropriately.

So the focus, at least for the more immediate future, is on unscripted.

No question we will primarily be more in the unscripted space. That is who we are. As content evolves, we want to be able to tell stories and flex our own storytelling muscles in a way that unscripted might not be able to do. So the idea of doing that once a quarter [with scripted] feels like it's right. If they were doing gangbuster, I still don't know that we would really do more than one a quarter because to do that we would be stripping our own DNA, which is telling stories and being in the live and in the unscripted space.

Scream is being rebooted with a focus on the African-American community and Queen Latifah is producing that as well as Calabasas. How much are you focused on telling more inclusive stories?

MTV is always about being in culture and ahead of culture. Our demo is 18-34 and 12-34 in the afternoons. When you look at that age range, more than 50 percent is nonwhite. So in many ways multicultural isn't multicultural anymore; it's just cultural. So when we look at the stories that we tell and the way that we tell them, we want to be as forward leaning on the screen as culture is itself. Our desire is to get to a pipeline that matches our audience so that we have 50 percent of our content coming from diverse producers, writers, production companies and to lead the industry in that way.

As you talk about honing in on coming-of-age moments, talk us through the decision to cancel Sweet/Vicious. The numbers weren't great but the reviews were stellar. Why not give that a chance to grow with a second season and event-ize it?

When I came back to MTV, in all honesty it was a triage. As much as we loved certain stories and things that were in development, I had to have a hard, cold look in the light of day at what was actually going to work and what we were going to place our bets on. And this is no different than when I was at VH1 or even MTV 2 in the beginning. We had to be honest with where we think the potential is. And we made a ton of cuts and we then took that money and invested it in ourselves again and quite honestly it's why June we turned a corner [the first time MTV was up in adults 18-34 since 2011]. We really did turn that corner and we needed to do that by June because the summer is such a pivotal month for MTV. The unfortunate thing is there are projects that I left on the floor that if we had the opportunity to tell again it would probably be a different story. But if we didn't make those hard choices, we wouldn't be in the enviable position we are in today.

Scream is morphing into an anthology, something the original showrunners considered before the show launched. What's the long-term plan for that franchise?

Scream is an amazing franchise. Why not? We had a great partnership with [producers] the Weinsteins and said let's throw the rule book out. Let's look at the broader culture and see where we see opportunities and then let's push ourselves. We came to a great place where we were like let's just make this amazing six-hour event and bring in musicians and pop culture storylines. How do we actually make this a fun event that we could potentially do every year? That is our hope.

In success, does this get rebooted with a new cast and premise every season?

What FX did in American Horror Story was groundbreaking. We would like to do that in this genre with more comedic sensibility, a little bit younger and a little less serious. We think that it's a great model. We're going to elevate our own stakes by doing it as a three-night, six-hour event, running into the streaming of it all and actually create events around the country too. I think we're probably going to see those stories and those characters change but a great horror story is a great horror story.

The Faith Evans mini, Scream — with its casting — and Calabasas with its concept and producing team all have ties to the music industry. Will everything be rooted in music, be it in the creative or the casting?

Totally. Music is our life. That has always been our soundtrack and that always will be our soundtrack, that's when we are at our best. We are observers of culture and carnivores of pop culture.

If War of the Worlds and Calabasas move ahead, are you looking to cast those with actors who have roots in music?

Whenever possible, absolutely. But we certainly won't limit ourselves to that. We want to get the best actors and actresses that can tell the best stories and when possible, we would lean more toward a musician that can do both. But we want to tell great stories and that's going to require more than just musicians.

War of the Worlds was developed before you added oversight of MTV. Why keep that? How does that fit in with MTV's new scripted direction?

At the time, I thought it was such a great idea. We were just going into the election, the world was actually starting to feel a little alien. The story itself is so timely: young people wanting to save the world with aliens taking over. It's a social commentary on so many different things. Like what a fun and wonderful time to tell that story.

What's your timeline for scripted after Teen Wolf and Scream in March?

I'm following Jeff's lead on War of the Worlds. Teen Wolf will be through the summer, then we'll do Scream in fall/winter and then ideally we're welcoming in Calabasas shortly thereafter. Our goal is to get to a place where we genuinely have one big scripted event each quarter. I'm not trying to rush into any of them. What I learned so well with VH1 is when you have great shows to choose from you actually never have to make rushed choices. We've filled our pipeline with great producers, stories and content that thankfully every quarter we were able to exceed our numbers because we weren't rushed to make any decisions. And now that we have MTV in a really great space in the unscripted side of the house — which does drive the majority of our ratings — we now have the ability to take our time and pick the right characters and stories. I'd like us to be in a spot where we're telling one a quarter but if we don't get there, I won't beat ourselves up for it next year if we took the right time to incubate it and really curate it so we do it right.

Will Calabasas have a Justin Bieber character?

Maybe! (Laughs.)

If the Faith Evans mini is successful, is that something you can build a franchise out of?

Absolutely. We will never tell an unauthorized story. We want to always tell the story with the artist hand-in-hand. We'd love to be able to do more stories like this. What is unique about MTV is we're able to tell it with the artists and continue our relationship with them. We also have tons of hours of archival footage to tell it through.

Will the mini be a mix of scripted and docuseries with archival footage?

In this case it won't but I think we'll certainly use it as inspiration. We have it at our disposal, why not?

Could you pair this with a Faith and Biggie docuseries, for example, where you use the footage you have at your disposal?

We would love to. How do we make a bigger event out of it? By then we'll have our Afternoon Live series up and you could see us creating unique documentaries that are around the era. And then this helps to really amplify it and be the crescendo of it.

Viacom just signed a big film and TV deal with Tyler Perry. Have you spoken with him about content for MTV yet?

Not yet.

Queen Latifah is doing both Scream and Calabasas with you. Is there a similar overall deal in the works there? 

Not yet. I'm a huge fan of Queen Latifah. One of the first projects we did when I went over to VH1 was Hip Hop Honors. We honored her and some of the women who blazed the trail last year. So the more we can work with Queen Latifah, the happier we all are.

So, Living Single reboot coming soon?!

Hey, I mean it certainly has been talked about!

Really?

Absolutely! I grew up on Living Single! There's nothing that we can comment on now but as a child who grew up on Martin and Living Single and In Living Color, those are amazing stories. I think we're all huge fans of Queen Latifah and that franchise. 

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