MTV is finally getting its mojo back, thanks to the tanned twenty-somethings of "Jersey Shore."
Ever since its December debut, the show's buzz has been huge — even making it into one of President Barack Obama's speeches. The July 29 start of the second season, shot in Miami, drew 5.3 million viewers, nearly quadruple the original opener. And audiences have been staying put ever since.
"It's like a train wreck," said Tina Cordova, a Washington, D.C.-based contractor, who gathers with her "Jersey"-loving girlfriends to watch every Thursday night. "You just can't look away."
"Jersey Shore" is just one contributor to a ratings rebound that MTV has enjoyed since January. It marks MTV's first consistent gain in three years.
That's a big win for parent company Viacom Inc., as its movie studio Paramount Pictures has been paring down its slate. Higher ratings mean advertisers from fast food chains to clothing retailers are lining up to get on board. Analysts say that should help boost the stock price in the months ahead.
Executives say that it's no fluke that many of its shows including "Jersey Shore" are taking off. The executives credit new programming spending and plenty of research into what young people want to see: more real situations, less fake glamour and fewer competitions.
"'The Hills' was definitely a fabricated reality and 'Jersey Shore' and 'Teen Mom' are more harsh, authentic realities. And that is what's resonating much more today," said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks' Music and Logo Group, which oversees the flagship network and other channels such as CMT.
MTV's ratings had been steadily declining as some of its reality shows such as "Real World," now in its 24th season, were getting old. Sister networks Comedy Central and Nickelodeon have ebbed and flowed for several years.
But since the beginning of July, MTV's ratings are up 22 percent among its core audience of people ages 12 to 34, and ratings are up 15 percent in core demographics across key Viacom channels MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and TV Land.
A mix of new reality shows, scripted comedies and such up-and-coming comedians as Daniel Tosh on "Tosh.0" are all helping the mix.
"Our anchor tenants in the building are connecting with their fans," said Judy McGrath, MTV Networks' chief executive. "A lot of work went into it, and it's working."
Toffler said that Millennials — young people born roughly since 1980 — are more conservative and family-based than the generation before them. He said they like to learn their life lessons alongside mindless fun.
Edging away from contrived scenarios and extravagant lifestyles and toward regular people and their problems is also striking a chord with audiences during hard economic times.
It's no mistake that "Jersey Shore's" partyers enjoy their late-night clubbing after stints working at a gelato shop, or that Michael "The Situation" Sorrentino's formula for success consists of such mundane tasks as "gym, tan and laundry."
"It's people they can identify with," said Brad Adgate, a senior vice president and director of research at ad agency Horizon Media. "Really, a part of their success has been driven by that."
Among other MTV winners is "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," a coming-of-age comedy that is a rare foray for MTV into scripted programming. Audiences also have been drawn to "The Buried Life," in which four people chase "100 things to do before you die" while making other people's dreams come true for every task of their own that they accomplish.
Caris & Co. analyst David Miller says MTV's ratings are as "golden" as spray tan and he rates Viacom's widely traded Class B stock "above average" with a target price of $42, about a third above the current level.
With Viacom set to renew a $4 billion share buyback program starting in October, shareholders should see stock prices rise as profits are concentrated among fewer shares. "We can see why management is salivating over buying back stock at these levels," Miller wrote in a research note.
Viacom's advertising revenue rose 4 percent in the latest quarter compared with last year, marking the second straight period of increase. Because advertising increases typically trail ratings gains by six to eight months, Miller wrote, the recent ratings boom should translate into more advertising dollars soon.
Aside from MTV, the Web video-inspired show "Tosh.0" on Comedy Central is attracting more men under 34 than any other television show on Wednesday nights. User-submitted clips with such names as "Giant Butt Girl" and "Wedding Vomit" suggest the kind of tawdry humor that is making guys laugh.
Nickelodeon's dominance among pre-teens is also getting a boost from its new math-focused "Team Umizoomi" show, which runs on alongside longtime hits "SpongeBob SquarePants," "iCarly," and "Dora the Explorer."
Even 89-year-old Betty White is helping grow the company's fan base among a slightly older crowd with the show "Hot in Cleveland" on TV Land, which debuted to a huge audience of 5.8 million in June. The channel's fans, nurtured on traditional sitcoms such as "Hogan's Heroes" and "Gilligan's Island," were ready for an original show, White said.
"There's nothing fancy or on the edge or groundbreaking," White said in an interview. "We're just an old-fashioned situation comedy, and I think that's what their audience was looking for. And I think that's why they accepted it so fast."
To keep up its momentum, Viacom is prepping a ream of new shows, including a Comedy Central sports news show in partnership with The Onion, and MTV's reboot of the 1980s "Teen Wolf" movies as a TV series.
There's no guarantee that either show will succeed. And Horizon Media's Adgate said of "Jersey Shore's" success: "It's not going to last forever."
But Viacom's batting average, at least at MTV, is getting better. According to McGrath, a greater percentage of MTV's new shows are becoming "hits," or shows that boost MTV's audience share by 1 percentage point among 12- to 34-year-olds, a key group sought by advertisers.
Toffler acknowledges MTV's success comes in cycles and tends to lull when one generation gives way to the next. For now, it seems to have caught the next wave.
As for "Jersey Shore," season three is shooting in the original location in Seaside Heights, N.J.
Viewers will surely stick around for the episode featuring Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi's arrest for annoying other beachgoers last month. A bigger audience and more ad dollars will surely make investors wanna smush.
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