What does it take to cut through the hundreds of cable channels available today?
Viacom executive Chris McCarthy was faced with answering those questions when it came to reinvigorating a young, male audience for MTV2 as it neared its 20th anniversary and revitalizing gay trailblazer Logo TV after nearly a decade on-air.
“While the brands seem very, very different, and they are, from a brand perspective — one is young guys, and the other one is gays and gay culture,” McCarthy — MTV2, MTVu, and Logo TV’s general manager — told Business Insider, “they actually share a lot in common, more than most people would probably think.”
And the results are pretty impressive. Only three cable networks have actually increased their audience over the past eight quarters. MTV2 and Logo are two of them. This quarter alone MTV2 is pacing toward another year of growth after earning its highest ratings ever over 2014. Meanwhile, Logo is currently experiencing its highest ratings ever, after already achieving a 50% increase over the past six quarters.
McCarthy credits those accomplishments to some relatively simple (and sort of iconoclastic) changes in the way those cable channels do business.
1.) Act like a start-up.
“One is just the culture. We operate both of the brands like a start-up rather than a legacy cable model,” McCarthy said. “So, we break the rules. We don’t have any traditional greenlight process. It’s anywhere from 30 days to three months from concept to air.”
The new startup mindset has allowed the network to become more experimental. They can cut down the six to nine-month process to get a pilot to screen by just releasing the pilot as a special, or as a short test season. They get quicker audience feedback, can decide what changes to make if they move on to another season or just let the special or pilot season stand as it is with no renewal.
“It actually allows us to be quicker, faster, double down on things that aren’t working, double down on things that are working and quickly move past things that aren’t,” McCarthy explained. “It’s that start-up mentality where we sail fast, we sail forward.
For example, Logo’s makeover show “Secret Guide to Fabulous” (which is produced by Kelly Ripa and husband Mark Consuelos) premiered as a six-episode pilot season. After that run, the creative team “tinkered with it” and will bring it back this summer for another season.
2.) Decentralize the creative process.
“The second thing is our creative and our talent, and that’s both on and off the screen,” the GM said. “So from our interns to our talent on-air, everyone pitches ideas, and everybody makes them and actually gets to market them. Both groups are structured very horizontally, and it’s a little bit like a creative collective.”
This is one of the reasons Nick Cannon approached MTV2 with bringing back his hip-hop improv series “Wild N’ Out” with a few changes.
“He did that, because he knows we’ll give him the creative freedom to create the show in the way that he wants to,” McCarthy pointed out.
But, the the system doesn’t just work for those with already established names. “We take pitches from production companies, but oftentimes, most of our content is developed internally,” McCarthy said.
“So we have two young guys that we found on the internet, and we brought them into MTV2, and we started just putting them into shows, but they also have office space, and they’re pitching us ideas.”
3.) Double-down on creating content for your core audience.
“The third piece is we’ve created demand, and I think this really applies for any industry, really,” McCarthy described, “If you think about the actual content space as a whole, the world has enough content, and had enough content. But what we were able to do with these brands is create an audience demand by taking sort of an audience desire and tapping into it.”
Since McCarthy took charge of MTV2 in 2009, networks were abandoning the young male audience. NBCUniversal shuttered G4, Comedy Central and Spike TV went broader and Esquire targeted an older male demographic.
“People had sort of felt like young guys are too hard to get, go after,” McCarthy, who has used comedy to attract young male viewers to MTV2, recalled. “And instead we said, ‘No, we’re going to develop specifically for them,’ and we brought them back to television.”
Logo had a different problem that called for a similar solution. Gay rights, specifically marriage rights, gained support in the U.S. TV had begun to increase the amount of gay characters on shows. Many wondered if there’s even a need for a channel geared toward gay viewers anymore.
“We said, ‘No, it’s the reverse.’ We double down on it, and the results are showing, we’re up almost 50 per cent,” McCarthy said. “No one’s telling a 360 degree angle on that character. We’re telling every side of the character, and it’s not just checking off a box, having a gay character. Our characters and our stories are centered around that.”
Its new programming aims to reflect gay lives and history. Logo has moved into scripted programming with “Cucumber” and “Banana,” two interlocking series created by “Doctor Who” producer and “Queer as Folk” creator Russel T. Davies, which earned the network’s highest ratings for a new series (with the help of a lead-in from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”).
Logo has also created a documentary division that launched with “Orange Is the New Black” star’s “Laverne Cox Presents the T-Word.” The channel’s deep dive into gay culture included its “Trailblazers” special, a rare celebration at LGBT heroes, and “Cocktails and Classics,” which takes an inside look at movies that have become gay cult classics like “Valley of the Dolls,” “Auntie Mame,” and “Steel Magnolias.”
“With gay characters happening all over television, there was really an opportunity to re-position the network back to being the home of gays,” he said.
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