MTV's New Chief on His Strategy to Lure Millennials

Chris McCarthy is slashing shows ('Prison High'? 'Air Sex'?!) and focusing on "everything it is to be young" in a fresh bid to retool the struggling network.
Courtesy of VH1
MTV president Chris McCarthy

MTV president Chris McCarthy is cleaning house just a month into the job.

The third leader of the youth-targeting network in the past two years has led Viacom sibling VH1 to its biggest ratings growth in 15 years in 2016 and hopes to bring MTV back into the daily conversation. That means eliminating several unscripted series that don't resonate with his brand vision, including Prison High, Air Sex, Almost Impossible Game Show, Acting Out, Down to Earth and Stupid Man, Smart Phone, with more potentially joining them on the scrap heap as McCarthy looks to focus more on quality and less on quantity. (Safe for now are shows that are working that hit the right notes — like ratings hit Teen Mom, though that could be refreshed in the spirit of early episodes of flagship 16 and Pregnant.)

"The opportunity for MTV is to embody everything it is to be young — optimistic, hopeful, idealistic, diverse, messy and fun," McCarthy tells THR of his strategy. "Music is a huge part of that, and we will be doing even more music programming. But it's not the only part of it. If we zero in solely on music, we're limiting our brand."

As part of the change in unscripted direction — which insiders stress will focus on universal moments similar to previous hits The Hills, Jersey Shore and Laguna Beach — head of programming Michael Klein stepped down Nov. 28 following a six-month run and was replaced by VH1's Nina Diaz, who was promoted to head of unscripted at both networks. Klein's exit came a month after McCarthy replaced Sean Atkins, who stepped down after a year on the job in which he failed to produce a new hit and stem a ratings erosion.

Year-over-year, MTV is down 11 percent among its core 18-to-34 demographic and has suffered from creative inconsistencies. "MTV has no brand; no one knows what it is," gripes one agent. "It has to be something or it's going to die." Still, amid broader troubles at Viacom's cable networks, MTV's 2015 revenue was a relatively strong $1.25 billion, according to SNL Kagan (though off from $1.36 billion in 2014). Cash flow, a measure of profitability, was $438 million in 2015, down from $564 million in 2014.

Insiders say McCarthy is looking for more live fare and other ways to build out events like the VMAs with activities that engage elusive millennial viewers beyond the screen(s). On the scripted side, comedies Loosely Exactly Nicole and Mary + Jane are on the bubble as McCarthy eyes new music stories and content that strike an emotional chord for millennials and older viewers the way Awkward did when it put MTV on the scripted map. (Mina Lefevre will continue to oversee scripted at MTV, and Maggie Malina will do the same at VH1.)

The challenge is significant, notes S&P Global Market Intelligence analyst Scott Robson: "They're struggling for a hit, and there's been a lull between Jersey Shore and their last big hit. It's hard to gain traction with millennials there."

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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