Executive Suite: David Janollari
The MTV programming chief and former producer talks about the "Teen Mom" controversy, "Jersey Shore'"s uncertain future and why the reality network is determined to be something more.
After years spent teetering on the brink of irrelevance, MTV is staging a comeback. Thanks to such culture-defining hits as Jersey Shore -- the No. 1 series on cable among younger viewers -- Teen Mom andits first scripted breakout, Awkward, programming chief David Janollari has something to crow about. MTV is enjoying its highest-rated year since 2007, with seven consecutive quarters of growth and a concerted push into the scripted space. In October, MTV began to build an animation block with a rebooted Beavis and Butt-Head, which drew3.3 million viewers in its debut, and new entry Good Vibes. And that's just the start, according to the Rhode Island native, who joinedthe Viacom-owned network in January 2010. Before that, Janollari, 48, was a producer and co-founder of the Greenblatt/Janollari Studio -- the company behind such shows as American Family, The Hughleys and the Emmy-winning Six Feet Under -- then was entertainment president at the WB network. The travel aficionado sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in his Santa Monica office to discuss what's next for Jersey Shore, lessons learned from the failure of Skins and the future of MTV.
How would you define the MTV brand today?
The core audience that we target, 12- to 34-year-olds, is looking to not only have fun but have their lives reflected back at them in a heightened way. Our internal mantra, which we stole from our audience, is "our lives, amplified." So we're always looking for the MTV hook. In the case of Teen Mom, it's a dramatic look at a real situation amplified by a baby in the mix. With Teen Wolf, we set out to tell a coming-of-age tale of transformation, with teen milestone issues like first loves, friendships and conflicts at school amplified by the wolf mythology.
What do you look for in development?
There are some fundamentals: Does it take risks? Is it provocative? Is it irreverent? Is it smart and funny? Is it somehow resonating with the lives of our audience? Is it delivering big, relatable characters with emotional core underpinnings?
What has changed internally from a few years ago when the network was struggling?
I came in right after the company started to think about where we went wrong. There had been years of ratings erosion, and it was back then -- and it continues to this day -- that we realized the most important thing is for us to stay in touch with our audience. There's a sense that in the past we were chasing and trying to program for Generation X when this whole new generation had come along with a different set of interests.
What did you learn from the failure of Skins?
Skins was a valiant effort, and for all the right reasons it was the right foray into scripted drama for us. The controversy of it [advertisers fled over its racy content] overshadowed the actual content, and I don't believe the content warranted the kind of controversy that it got. Maybe it was a bit ahead of its time, given that we didn't have a scripted presence at the time.
Awkward, which is sweet and critically adored, feels like a departure for MTV. Fair?
About 18 or 19 months ago, when we started to introduce scripted, we were focus-testing a number of pilots, and at the beginning of that process we would hear, "MTV doesn't do that." They'd say, "Oh wow, that feels like it should be on FX," because there was no reference point. Now, they say: "Oh yeah, I get it. That's an MTV scripted series." Then, when we were getting ready to launch Teen Wolf, we heard things like, "That's Skins with fangs." It had nothing to do with Skins, but that was their reference point.
What genres would you like to start developing in that you haven't yet? Musicals?
Music is an important piece for us to reinvigorate on the channel. It's a part of our DNA; if you ask anyone who watches MTV what the first thing that comes to mind is, they'll probably say music. The Video Music Awards certainly cement our flag firmly in that territory, and [America's Best Dance Crew] is going into its seventh season. But we'd love to be in the musical space more, whether it's with scripted, reality or maybe a hybrid. Can we live in the serialized world? Can a nongenre hour work? It's something interesting to try to crack. And on thereality side, we always asks ourselves: "What's the next Jersey Shore or Teen Mom? What's the next big, broad, galvanizing hourlong reality series?"
Where's the line on Jersey Shore or Teen Mom?
Throughout the history of MTV -- and you can go back to the original incarnation of Beavis and Butt-Head or Jackass and, most recently, Jersey Shore -- controversy often surrounds our shows, but the audience will only stick with a show because it likes it. We would fail if we set out to be loud for the sake of being loud or be controversial for the sake of being controversial.
But some of your biggest shows work because they are loud and controversial, no?
Yes, and it's great to have strong reaction one way or another. I always say anything middle of the road has not worked on MTV, so for us to do something that doesn't feel frank, honest and as contemporary as possible, we'd fail.
What won't you show on Teen Mom?
I'm not sure. I'm sure there is a line where we would go, "We're not going to do that." Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant were born out of an observation of what's happening in the world around us. No other network would have done those shows, and there's controversy that surrounds those shows for a lot of reasons, but it wasn't the reason those shows got made.
After Beavis and Butt-Head, are you combing the MTV library for other shows to revive? Daria, perhaps?
There are some franchises that we're looking at potentially rebooting. We'd love to have a significant animation presence going forward, so might that be a part of it? Sure.
How far can you take the Jersey Shore brand?
We talk a lot about the fact that historically, all reality franchises reach a point where they start to diminish. Thankfully, we're not there yet. So right now, the show has a good life to it. We've announced that we'll make two spinoffs, with possibly more to come.
Where does the reality genre go next?
It's interesting because years ago, when The Hills and Laguna Beach were hugely popular, they were a new form. It was a scripted/reality hybrid. But our audience finally said: "We don't want to see the puppet strings anymore. We don't want to see the fake version; give us the real version." So they gravitated to shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom and Jersey Shore. The docu-reality show will be a part of our fabric for a long time.
You're a big traveler. Any favorite trips?
I'm a scuba diver, so I like to go to places like the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Indonesia. I've traveled the world a couple of times. The first time, I was 25 years old. A college buddy and I looked at each other and said, "There's got to be something more than this." We were 25; what did we know? So we quit our jobs and backpacked for a year. We ended up circling the globe and heading back through L.A. I've been here ever since.
5 SHOWS COMING TO MTV
The Inbetweeners: An adaptation of the U.K. comedy, the scripted series described as Superbad meetsFreaks and Geeks follows four suburban teens.
Catfish: Based on the 2010 Sundance darling,the unscripted effort will be shepherded to the small screen by the film's producers.
Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous: The scripted series, co-created by and starring comedian Bo Burnham, hilariously explores this generation's desire to be famous.
I Just Want my Pants Back: The dramedy adaptation centers on the characterJason Strider, whose heart and pants were stolenby a one-night stand. The scripted ensemble centerson him getting the jeans -- and hopefully the girl.
Wait Till Next Year: Dubbed a reality docudrama version of Friday Night Lights, it follows a high school football team as it triesto reverse a five-year losing streak on and off the field.