LOS ANGELES — Can a well-endowed teen make MTV hot again?
The youth-obsessed cable network, seeking to stem a years-long ratings slide, believes it has found just the thing to get back on track: “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” a scripted comedy about a boy with an, um, anatomical gift.
The show, billed as a cross between “The Wonder Years” and the R-rated comedy “Superbad,” is a raunchy coming-of-age tale about a nerdy teen who achieves notoriety among his high school peers when they discover that he’s got a rather large penis.
“Hard Times” marks MTV’s break from reality TV that has dominated the channel in recent years. Although MTV pioneered the format with shows like “The Real World,” and “Jersey Shore’s” party-hopping Italian-Americans in South Jersey has proven to be a sleeper hit, the channel needs to make one of its periodic attempts to reinvent itself, industry executives say.
“Having lived on a smorgasbord of reality TV, they can’t just serve up Jell-O. It has to be spicy,” said Brent Poer, managing director of the West Coast offices of the ad-buying firm MediaVest. “It has to make viewers sit up and say, ‘There goes MTV, breaking all the rules.’”
But if controversy is what it will take for MTV to regain momentum, it may need a big dollop of it. The network’s viewership has sunk over the past few years and its average rating at 10 p.m. EST — the hour in which MTV premieres new episodes of its shows — fell another 18 percent to 801,000 viewers in 2009 among the channel’s core 12- to 34-year-old viewers.
Audiences seem to be tiring of its longtime hit “The Hills,” about the charmed, semi-staged life of Lauren Conrad, which launched in 2006 and viewers fled last year after its star left the show. Dozens of other low-budget reality shows have come — and gone — without notice.
As a result of the audience erosion, MTV no longer is a must-buy for advertisers seeking young audiences, said Carrie Drinkwater, SVP/group account director at ad-buying firm MPG.
“People still flip on MTV to see what’s on. The brand still has that pull,” Drinkwater said. But “they don’t have the cache they used to with advertisers. Now there are countless other ways to reach young people, particularly with Web and gaming.”
The tumbling ratings and revenue — advertising brought in $820 million in 2009, off nearly 20 percent from 2006 figures, according to research firm SNL Kagan — has not gone unnoticed by MTV’s bosses at media giant Viacom Inc., which also owns the Paramount film studio. MTV, and its sister channel VH-1, are one of the crown jewels among Viacom’s juggernaut cable networks, which also include Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon, and accounted for 62 percent of the company’s revenues in the first nine months of last year.
Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman throughout last year acknowledged MTV’s struggles, including at a Goldman Sachs media conference in September, and outlined a plan to rebuild the channel by investing in more costly gambits — live-action shows, animated series and original movies — to build on its stable of reality shows.
“Hard Times” is the capstone of two years of development efforts by MTV General Manager Stephen Friedman, an MTV Networks veteran who was promoted to the channel’s top post in 2008. “For me, (the show) speaks to where we need to go as a network. It’s smart, refreshingly candid and really captures what our audience wants: a nuanced, multilayered portrayal of their lives,” he said.
Series co-creator Seth Grahame-Smith said the hook may be brash, but like HBO’s similarly premised “Hung,” “it’s not a show about his penis. Episodes 2 and 3 have nothing to do with his penis.”
While reality shows won’t disappear from MTV anytime soon, the network now has about 20 scripted shows in development, among them a U.S. version of the gritty British teen drama “Skins,” a series from producer Tommy Lynch called “Normal,” centered around a teen who inadvertently becomes a drug dealer when he tries to overcome addiction to prescription drugs, and a “Groundhog’s Day”-style show starring Emma Roberts as a young girl forced to relive the day before her 16th birthday.
“Hard Times” will air during summer, MTV’s peak season, coupled with another high-profile launch “Warren the Ape,” which revives pompous, drunk, D-list celebrity puppet Warren “The Ape” DeMontague; the foul-mouthed character first appeared on the 2002 Fox series “Greg the Bunny.”
“Getting into scripted shows is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Tony Di Santo, MTV’s programming chief. “The key to MTV’s success is not getting too homogenized and moving too much in one direction.”
To shepherd the new areas of development, Friedman and Di Santo enlisted veteran TV executive David Janollari, who will head up scripted development in Los Angeles, Brent Haynes, who will run comedy and animation, and Steve Tseckares and James Bolosh, who will be develop “pop culture programming,” studio-based shows and series vehicles for music artists.
“Reinvention for us is necessary,” Friedman said. “It’s critical we let go of audiences as they age up. The millennial audience is savvier than ever, so they have higher expectations for what they consume.”
Still, even the stars of “Hard Times” doubted whether MTV could pull off a frank and explicit comedy about a hormonal teen.
“I remember having some skepticism. I wasn’t sure how they were going to handle such aggressive material,” said Paul Iacono, 21, who plays RJ. “But ... I think ‘Hard Times’ could be what ‘Weeds’ was for Showtime, that sort of first ambitious step forward.”
“Weeds,” about a suburban soccer mom who turns to dealing pot to support her family, helped put Showtime back on the programming map after years of running behind HBO.