Escapism or activism? Resurgent youth channel MTV looks to do both

Published August 9, 2018, 3:53 AM

by Hannah Torregoza 

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Youth-oriented MTV network is enjoying a resurgence on the back of reviving reality shows such as the raucous “Jersey Shore: Family Vacation.”

The MTV logo can be seen on a sign in front of the MTV studios in Times Square New York Dec. 12, 2007. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson) /
The MTV logo can be seen on a sign in front of the MTV studios in Times Square New York Dec. 12, 2007. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

The network that championed “Rock the Vote” in the 1990s and tackled issues like abortion and AIDS on “The Real World” is burnishing its activist credentials again amid a new wave of teens fighting for a change using non-traditional methods to promote causes ranging from gun control to gay rights.

“The voice of young people is only getting louder and that has inspired us to elevate our game,” MTV President Chris McCarthy told Reuters. “Our job is to put a fire hose and amplify it.”

After a five-year slump in viewers, the Viacom-owned network has seen four straight quarters of growth and its highest third-quarter prime time ratings in seven years, according to Nielsen figures.

The data shows a 46 percent surge in MTV’s target audience of 18-34 year olds compared with the same period in 2017.

Yet traditional TV viewing by Americans aged 18-24 has plunged more than 40 percent since 2012, according to 2017 Nielsen data, as young people engage more with streaming, social and digital media.

At its 35-year mark, MTV is responding with new programming on issues such as substance abuse, immigration and politics.

McCarthy, who was appointed in July 2016, says there in no contradiction between social issues and shows such as the raunchy “Ex on the Beach” and a recently announced reality series with actress Lindsay Lohan.

“Part of why we are successful is because the audience is looking for authentic escapism and activism. It’s part of our promise to do both things,” McCarthy said.

MTV was quick to support students in Parkland, Florida, who used social media earlier this year to turn a school shooting into mass protests against gun violence.

The network went dark for 17 minutes as students walked out of schools nationwide, handed over its Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat accounts to young voices, and helped sending 17 buses to Washington, D.C. for the “March for Our Lives” protest in March.

At the end of 2018, MTV will launch an annual Teen Trailblazers event to highlight the efforts of more than a dozen young people who inspire others on issues ranging from the environment to women’s rights, McCarthy said.

Just as “16 and Pregnant” threw a spotlight on the high U.S. teen birth rate five years ago, MTV is considering new shows, such as “16 and Addicted” for substance abuse, and “16 and Transitioning” on transgender issues.

Another show in production, called “Border Life”, will feature young Mexican-Americans.

“There is so much conversation about the border and immigration. We wanted to bring faces and stories about what it’s like to grow up and have a family and businesses on both sides,” McCarthy said.

In 1990, a bikini-clad Madonna wrapped in a U.S. flag urged MTV viewers to go out and vote as the network partnered with the “Rock the Vote” campaign that mixed pop culture and politics.

MTV plans to mark the U.S. mid-term elections in November with a new campaign. It has yet to give details, but notes that pop culture and politics have long gone hand-in-hand.

“With Gen Z and Millennials, the lines between activism and entertainment is completely blurred. Some of the best actors and celebrities are also the biggest activists,” McCarthy added.