- MTV has been on a mission to revitalize its brand, and restore its reputation with young viewers and women through a mix of unscripted shows and reality-TV shows.
- The network has seen an early lift in linear-TV ratings since reviving unscripted franchises from the 2000s like “Jersey Shore” and “The Hills.”
- “We had a strategic blueprint that was really built around, how do we create surround sound over a long period of time, so that when we do launch the show on linear, we’re successful,” Jacqueline Parkes, CMO of MTV, told Business Insider.
- Parkes also explained how MTV is selling nostalgia to audiences old and new, and the data-oriented mindset that network president Chris McCarthy has brought to the marketing team.
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Turn on MTV during any weekday night and you might think it’s 2010, with new episodes from old reality-TV franchises like “The Hills,” “Jersey Shore,” and “Teen Mom” rolling out weekly.
Viacom veteran Chris McCarthy spent the last three years as president of MTV trying to revive the ailing network, which had lost touch with viewers amid the scripted-TV boom. The network renewed its focus on unscripted series — as well as the brands that hooked viewers back in the 2000s — to bring teens and women back into the fold.
CMO Jacqueline Parkes oversees marketing at MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo, and serves as EVP of Viacom’s Digital Studios. Parkes is charged with getting MTV shows in front of the right audiences, including fans who may have forgotten about the network, and those who never tuned in to begin with.
Parkes spoke to Business Insider about selling nostalgia with revivals like “The Hills: New Beginnings” and the “Jersey Shore” spinoffs, as well as courting the next MTV generation. It comes down to diligent, long-term planning, knowing audiences, and finding ways to connect with them emotionally.
“We’ve seen a lot of other companies try to bring back revivals without success,” Parkes said. “We had a strategic blueprint that was really built around, how do we create surround sound over a long period of time, so that when we do launch the show on linear, we’re successful.”
When MTV premiered “The Hills: New Beginnings” in June, for example, Parkes and her marketing team started planting seeds about the franchise’s return in audiences minds about 10 months out, when members of the original cast reunited at the MTV Video Music Awards to announce the revival.
Parkes had identified three key audiences for the revival of “The Hills,” a reality-TV series about a group of affluent young adults living in California, which originally aired from 2006 to 2010. She targeted fans of “The Hills” who still watched MTV, fans who were no longer watching the network, and people who may have been too young or old to see the original series but enjoy similar programming.
“We call them social Sophies,” Parkes said of this last group. “They like to be a part of the social conversation. They like fashion, dating, reality TV … We sized up each one of those targets, and then we strategically identified how we could connect with them.”
The announcement at the MTV Video Music Awards spoke to fans who were still watching MTV. The network cultivated them further by airing marathons of the show leading up to the June 24 premiere, and launching a pop-up channel on Viacom’s free, streaming-TV service Pluto TV, which played episodes of “The Hills” and its predecessor series “Laguna Beach” around the clock.
Parkes pursued through social media and other platforms fans of “The Hills” who had ceased watching MTV. The show’s stars promoted the series on their social accounts. In one example, MTV partnered with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to have “The Hills” star Audrina Patridge answer questions from users about what they should wear in the morning.
Reaching the ‘social Sophies’
On social media, MTV highlighted quintessential moments from the original series, and looked for emotional pulls that might resonate with people, even if they hadn’t seen the show.
crying in public should be considered an olympic sport 💅 #thehills pic.twitter.com/lYdJHlryn6
— The Hills (@thehills) February 14, 2019
“We tapped into emotional truisms that enabled us to connect with people on a much deeper level,” Parkes said.
For those “social Sophies,” who weren’t familiar with “The Hills,” Parkes had to get more creative. Her team worked with the social music app, Smule, and artist Natasha Bedingfield to perform the show’s theme song, “Unwritten,” on the platform, where people could sing along.
During the week ahead of the premiere, a group of young men who were almost certainly too young to have watched “The Hills” when it first aired, got in on the challenge. Their video went viral on Twitter with more than 26,000 likes and 90,000 retweets.
This really a bop 😂 pic.twitter.com/qylCWsr0MK
— Scoop (@ScoopTCQ) June 19, 2019
When “The Hills: New Beginnings” premiered on June 24, it became 2019’s second highest live-and-same-day cable TV debut among MTV’s core 18- to 34-year-old demographic. It followed another MTV revival, a dating spinoff of “Jersey Shore,” called “Double Shot at Love with DJ Pauly D and Vinny.”
The first metric Parkes looks at for any show on TV is the percentage of the audience that watched who had never seen the show before. A healthy benchmark is 10% to 12%, she said. For the premiere of “The Hills,” it was 24% — close to the 25% the “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation” spinoff had.
Ratings of “The Hills: New Beginnings” have slipped since launch, but the show still routinely ranks among the top 25 most watched cable shows among 18- to 49-year-olds on Monday nights.
Parkes is now applying “The Hills” formula to the upcoming reboot of “Making the Band,” which originally aired on MTV from 2002 to 2004. Star Sean “Diddy” Combs kicked off promotions by announcing the return on his Instagram account on July 15. And MTV is holding casting auditions for the series on Smule.
Digging into the data
Parkes, who joined MTV in the spring of 2016, shortly before McCarthy took over as president of the network in the fall, said that a lot of the audience targeting the marketing team is doing stems from the data-oriented mindset McCarthy introduced.
“He gets the art and science like no one I’ve ever seen in entertainment,” Parkes said, crediting McCarthy’s Wharton business school background for that talent. “We do a lot of data and analytics on every element of what we do.”
Parkes works closely with Viacom’s research arm, run by Colleen Fahey Rush, to identify the target audiences for each show and where best to reach them. “We do micro-market media buying,” Parkes said.
The marketing team may notice, for instance, that “Jersey Shore” is popular with viewers in New Haven, Connecticut, and then work with the research team to pinpoint 10 look-alike markets around the country to buy media for the show in. Those markets could be elsewhere in New England, or in places like New Jersey, Arizona, or Southern California that are less obvious.
The rest is still unwritten
In 2018, a year after McCarthy laid out his plan to get the network back on track, MTV was one of the fastest growing networks among 18- to 49-year-olds with a 17% viewership lift year over year, according to Nielsen data published by IndieWire.
The network has also grown prime-time ratings year over year for the past eight quarters, thanks to shows like “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation,” which is also ruling Thursday nights (dubbed “Jerzdays” by MTV) in cable ratings in its current season.
MTV has landed a few new reality-TV hits under the leadership of McCarthy and programming president Nina Diaz, too, including “Floribama Shore,” “Ex on the Beach,” and “Siesta Key.”
A potential acquisition of Viacom by sister company CBS, which could be announced as soon as Aug. 8, could offer MTV even more scale and the opportunity to bring its brands to new platforms, like CBS’s subscription services, the Hollywood Reporter reported.
“We’re launching 55 shows this year,” Parkes said. “If I add digital, that’s hundreds more … so we all have our heads down.”
The early boost on the cable-TV side is encouraging, but it’s MTV’s platform-agnostic approach to extending its nostalgic brands —and creating fresh ones — for audiences on digital platforms like YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook that are most promising to Wall Street.
“They’re not just trying to play the same game of driving ratings on the cable networks,” said Tim Nolan, analyst at Macquarie Capital, which upgraded Viacom to a neutral rating in February because of the network turnaround effort that’s most apparent at MTV. “If they can turn this around it’s because they know their users, they have mobile, digital-first content, and they can monetize it more effectively through targeted advertising.”
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