MTV Looks Beyond Jersey Shore

After a long slump, MTV is trying to build on the Jersey Shore juggernaut. Peter Lauria reports that executives want both scripted raunch and earnest programs like World of Jenks.

09.13.10 10:35 PM ET

Andrew Jenks is not the prototypical male MTV reality star. He lacks the vulgarity of Johnny Knoxville, the celebrity of Ozzy Osbourne, the pedigree of Brody Jenner, and the abs of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. Jenks is instead a lanky, earnest, well-traveled (having lived in Nepal and Belgium) auteur from humble beginnings. In short, he’s the antithesis of those other dudes. But while Jackass, The Osbournes, and The Hills have been breakout hits for MTV over its history, World of Jenks—the guerrilla documentary series in which Jenks embeds himself for a week with a mixed martial artist, animal rescuer, gangsta rapper, NFL cheerleader, and others to see what life is like in their worlds—is a vital litmus test for whether the network can use the momentum from the Jersey Shore juggernaut to launch and build a strong overall programming slate, something it has in the past failed to do off the back of the other shows.

A few years ago, a faction of executives inside MTV began grumbling that the network had become too female-oriented and a whisper campaign began to “bring the men back.”

With Jersey Shore averaging around 6 million viewers per week and Sunday’s Video Music Awards watched by an audience of 11.4 million (the award show’s highest ratings since 2002), MTV appears to be regaining its pop-culture clout. “MTV is back,” declared Richard Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG who has been notoriously negative on the network and its parent, Viacom, for the past few years. “Investors can no longer say nobody watches MTV, ‘it’s dead,’ or ‘that generation is using Facebook and does not care about MTV.’”

But the VMAs are a one-off and Jersey Shore’s star, not unlike the other breakout hits to come before it, will eventually fade. Before that happens, MTV needs to develop a slate of shows that collectively span genres and audience demographics to provide a solid ratings foundation and generate enough advertiser appeal to avoid falling into another prolonged slump. World of Jenks, for example, is aimed at men, though MTV did trade in the eponymous star's short hair, glasses and hand-me-down clothing for contacts, hipster attire, and a perfectly disheveled coif that gives him that bohemian artist vibe that young girls can't resist. The show’s earnestness stands in stark contrast to Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone’s decree in June that MTV develop a show around a raunchy, all-girl group dubbed The Electric Barbarellas over the objections of CEO Judy McGrath and other executives at the network.

Chris Linn, MTV’s executive vice president of production, first hit upon the idea to work with Jenks after seeing Room 335, the then-19-year-old's first documentary, in which he moves into a nursing home to experience what life is like for people preparing to die. Linn brought the movie to Tony DiSanto, MTV’s president of programming and development, and the two of them, along with senior vice president of series development Brent Haynes, decided to pitch Jenks on a series of 30-minute "self-contained" mini-movies that featured him moving in with various peers for a week to document their lives. (It’s similar to Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me and his followup series for FX, 30 Days.)

"Our research shows that our audience wants their reality real," says DiSanto. "They want to get real down and dirty. Jenks is a guy in their demo who is making films about worlds you think you know about, but he flips them on their heads and presents them in a totally different way. His visual language and the way he goes through the transformation [with the subject] is very authentic."

In the first episode—which aired after Sunday’s VMAs to an audience of 4.8 million total viewers, making it the highest-rated series launch in MTV’s history— Jenks moves in with Maino, the volatile rapper who served nine years in prison for kidnapping. The episode starts off slow and fluffy, but right at the point where it threatens to become little more than a video blowjob about the fabulous abundance of money, liquor, and ladies afforded charismatic MCs, it turns frighteningly violent, with Maino choking and repeatedly hitting Jenks in the face for asking if he’s providing a good example for his young fans. The footage is raw and real—and terrifying, with Maino’s bodyguard calmly advising the rapper to stop choking Jenks and, “Let him live.”

In another scene from the second episode, which aired Monday night, Jenks and the young homeless woman he’s embedded with take a trip to her family’s Oregon home. At one point, the camera focuses in on her mother sitting in a reclining chair, a large lizard resting comfortably along with her. Watching the juxtaposition of a reptile so completely at home with a daughter squirming uncomfortably as her mother talks about her homelessness is surreal.

At first Jenks was apprehensive about working with MTV, thinking that its reputation for created- or faux-reality shows like The Hills would result in him having to trade rawness for glammed-up drama. “I was worried that I wouldn’t have the creative control to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” he says. But MTV’s development team told him they wanted the show to reflect his vision, and then proved it by giving Jenks what he says is “as close to final cut as one can get.”

“The most exciting thing about making content now is that the reinvigoration of the channel allows us to take chances, try new things out, and be fearless,” DiSanto says. “That’s where great ideas come from.”

This summer marked the highest-rated in the last three years for MTV, up 16 percent over 2009, according to Nielsen. As Greenfield wryly notes, “We would be hard pressed to say the turn at MTV is due to Redstone or [Viacom CEO Philippe] Dauman’s creative instincts.”

Teen Mom ranked as the third most-watched original cable series among 12-34-year-olds, reaching a high of 3.5 million viewers. The new documentary series If You Really Knew Me debuted to 1.8 million total viewers, and The Hard Times of RJ Berger, part of a major scripted initiative at MTV, averaged roughly 1 million viewers during its first season run. ( Warren the Ape, however, fared terribly, averaging fewer than 500,000.)

As RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank notes, the goal with these shows isn’t to match the ratings of Jersey Shore—which gets more than double the number of viewers as the Emmy-winning Mad Men—but instead to broaden MTV’s demographic makeup and make the channel less reliant on repeats. Indeed, a few years ago a faction of executives inside MTV began grumbling that the network had become too female-oriented and a whisper campaign began to “bring the men back.” And that’s exactly what happened, with Jersey Shore and The Hard Times of RJ Berger leading the way for the network in male viewers.

“The audience has shifted from skewing predominantly toward 12-34-year-old females to more effectively capturing males as well,” says Bank.

DiSanto’s goal for MTV’s programming slate is to provide a “dimensionalized offering of entertainment” that spans reality, scripted, and animation, appeals to both males and females, and ranges in scope from aspirational to asinine. He says there’s room on MTV for any show that has three characteristics: authenticity, heart, and attitude.

Jersey Shore has the same authenticity and heart as World of Jenks, and Teen Mom is equally loud in its own way, making pop-culture waves with an Us Weekly cover,” he says by way of example.

And yes, DiSanto, who began his career at MTV as an intern in the late-'80s, is even keeping an open mind about The Electric Barbarellas, saying that show could very well end up on the network’s slate.

“It’s too early to tell, the project is still in development and I haven’t seen any footage,” says the ever-diplomatic DiSanto. “But there’s always a place on MTV for a show that pops. We’ll make a decision after we see the show.”

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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine.