EXCLUSIVE. On his way up the corporate ladder at Viacom, Chris McCarthy has added oversight of several networks, including MTV, VH1, Logo and CMT. As is the case everywhere in television, most of them have needed revitalizing. But no rebuilding project came close to the challenges at MTV.
For most of the 2010s, the onetime pop-culture supernova appeared to have burned out. Past Viacom regimes exacerbated the effects of MTV reaching middle age, focusing more on squeezing cable operators and buying back stock than on revitalizing the programming lineup. When McCarthy took over in late 2016 (just before Bob Bakish succeeded Philippe Dauman as CEO), MTV was practically an also-ran in the ratings.
Now, as Viacom gets set to report its fiscal first-quarter earnings on Tuesday, the picture is much rosier. McCarthy has zeroed in on unscripted content, successfully rebooting mainstays like Jersey Shore and launching new shows like Ex on the Beach. The quarter ending in December was the sixth in a row when primetime ratings grew in both the 18-to-34 demo as well as 18-to-49 — the longest such streak in 19 years, tied for the company’s best streak in 18-49. Last summer, the company also launched MTV Studios, a production outfit that hit the ground running with a Facebook Watch deal for a reboot of The Real World.
McCarthy, a 15-year Viacom veteran, spoke to Deadline about keys to the turnaround and the overall climate at MTV and its rebuilding parent company. The following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
DEADLINE: MTV blazed the trail in the beginning. Now, there are so many media outlets competing for the same audience. In that kind of environment, what do you see as MTV’s advantages?
CHRIS McCARTHY: We start from a position of strength. In the U.S., MTV has 98% brand awareness — not specific to cable, but across all media. So we do start from that position. In this crowded landscape, it’s nearly impossible for brands to get to that level. There’s no question the world has changed. Cable is just the beginning. We had to fix cable first. It’s our largest arena, it’s where most of our dollars sit and it’s our launchpad. But it’s just a piece — an important piece – of the ecosystem.
It’s really a testament to the team that we built, led by [entertainment president] Nina L. Diaz and [head of development] Lily Neumeyer. They’re makers. They move fast. The way that we look is not through the filter of old shows, but with great, rich, powerful IP. It’s a different approach, but it’s one that plays to our strengths.
DEADLINE: What’s a good example of that approach?
McCARTHY: Shores – we launched seven of them around the world. Sharing a beach house with your friends — it’s a time-honored tradition. We started to look at, ‘What’s a different subculture of that?’ One result was Floribama Shore. And then with the original Jersey Shore, we thought, ‘Let’s find a creative hook.’ It would be a different story, not coming of age. It’s now early 30-somethings. They’re in new marriages. They have kids. Some are breaking up. But they want to all be together on the shore and that idea gives us a lot to work with.
DEADLINE: A lot of your target viewers weren’t watching when the show first premiered 10 years ago, in 2009. So what did your research show you about who was responding to it? Did the audience skew older because for those viewers you had the nostalgia factor?
McCARTHY: On Floribama, it was squarely in 18-34. It also brings in more southern viewers. On Jersey Shore, it’s 30-somethings, and it helped to bring back our audience in different demos. In the larger cable world, 60% of networks are outside of 18-49. We decided to run into that. You’ll see us do more shows like that. Teen Mom speaks squarely to that. You’ll see us use that IP and play those different sides.
DEADLINE: How do you hold your own against social networks and tech companies, which offer a lot of programming and have a lot more money to spend?
McCARTHY: Content consumption continues to grow. We don’t look at it as either/or — it’s more. We are leveraging our legacy IP but we’re also launching some new IP. It’s that combination.
DEADLINE: Any newer shows you are particularly excited about?
McCARTHY: There’s a project called Border Life, which is set in the town of Nogales, a town that is half in the U.S. and half in Mexico. We’ve been making the show for nine months. Since then, so much has changed. It’s one of the centers of the conversation that’s happening [about immigration]. We’re on the ground. It’s not just a headline. You’re really experiencing what it’s like for these families. The show we thought we were going to tape is a lot different from the show we ended up taping. I don’t know that everyone is going to get it and that’s OK. It’s sort of like with 16 and Pregnant. Some people felt we were trying to exploit the problem. But over time, working with various groups, we lowered teenage pregnancy. We hit a cultural nerve. This show’s going to do the same thing.
DEADLINE: Do you feel like there’s still a lot of work to do?
McCARTHY: When you think about how much we’ve accomplished and how quickly, relative to the landscape and to our peers, it’s pretty extraordinary. MTV was No. 6 (in 18-34) we’re now No. 1. We’re growing in digital and in our studio. The strategy that we have is dead-on. And we’ve tapped less than 10% of our IP. Now is our opportunity to grow and play.
DEADLINE: How much of a distraction has the larger M&A speculation been? Wall Street continues to believe whether it’s through a merger with CBS — which is controlled by your controlling shareholder, National Amusements — or another company, Viacom will have to get bigger in order to survive.
McCARTHY: It’s noise. Regardless of who owns us and where we’re going, the one thing that matters is hit content and a strong brand. Content consumption isn’t going away. We didn’t build a model for cable. We built a model for all platforms.
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