MTV Is Stuck in Time. How Long Can It Survive?
MTV / Mike Falco / Getty Images
By Bonnie Stiernberg / April 1, 2020 9:05 am

“I Want My MTV” is punchier and more iconic, but flip through the network’s current programming, and another of its old slogans might feel more apt: “Turn it on, leave it on.”

For decades, the so-called Music Television had its finger on the pulse of youth culture, and as such was worshiped by teens and feared by parents convinced it was rotting their kids’ brains. But in recent years, MTV has leaned hard into reboots and revivals of some of its most popular reality series, stuff that has been “left on” for 10, 15, even 20-plus years. Jersey Shore, which premiered in 2009 and ran six seasons, was revitalized as Jersey Shore: Family Vacation in 2018. The Hills, which debuted in 2006 and became emblematic of that period in the aughts where we all loved gawking at spoiled rich high-schoolers, returned in 2018 as The Hills: New Beginnings. The Challenge, which kicks off its 35th — yes, you read that correctly, 35th — season tonight, has never left us. Even the Teen Mom moms are now pushing 30.

It begs the question: Who, exactly, is all of this for? And what does this mean for the future of the network? After decades of trying to appeal to teens, is MTV finally admitting that its target demographic is aging millennials — specifically, 30-somethings who grew up watching the network after school some 15 years ago?

“MTV always sort of had this elusive 18-to-34 market, but I think people would find that there are many people that are above 34 that still watch shows on that network,” Kate Casey, the host of Reality Life, a podcast dedicated to all things unscripted TV, tells InsideHook. “Not necessarily everything, but most of their big shows are shows that have been on the air for a while. Nicole Polizzi — Snooki — began on Jersey Shore when she was in her early twenties. She’s a mother of three kids now, and she’s still on the network, so a lot of people have sort of grown with her. The big stars of the network now are people that don’t necessarily fit into that demographic anymore.”

That’s certainly true of many cast members on The Challenge. When the new season — dubbed Total Madness — premieres tonight, it’ll mark 37-year-old Johnny “Bananas” Devenanzio’s record-breaking 20th season on the show. Aneesa Ferreira, 38, and Wes Bergmann, 35, are both back for the 13th time. Fan favorite Chris “CT” Tamburello, who will turn 40 this July, returns for his 17th season.

“At the end of the day, God, I love it,” Tamburello told Entertainment Weekly earlier this week. “I love it! I mean think about it — I got lucky 15 years ago when I went to a casting I found on flyers they were passing out at a club I was bartending at in college. I didn’t know those 15 minutes would last 15 years. Every year since then I get whisked off to this magical land, I’ve gone to every country, every continent except for the South Pole, doing crazy obstacles, jumping out planes, bungee jumping. Why do I keep coming back? Why not come back?!”

Though she hasn’t been on one of the network’s shows since 2010, Susie Meister has a pretty good idea why cast members like CT keep coming back. Meister, who has written extensively about the misogyny she experienced during her time on MTV, first appeared on Road Rules in 1998 before becoming a Challenge regular, and she says she understands how easy it is to keep getting sucked back in.

“It’s an odd relationship, because part of me, at least, really hated it from the early days, pretty much right as soon as I started doing The Challenge,” she tells InsideHook. “But there’s also something very enticing about participating. Number one, to go on the shows in the first place, you have to be attention-seeking. And so when they call you and want you to do another season, it’s very tempting. And in addition to that, it’s hard to get work after you’d been on sometimes. So, you also get stuck in this trap of, ‘Well, it’s just a couple months of work and you get money that can help you throughout the year or you have the potential to win a lot of money.’ So, it’s a cycle wherein you can’t get meaningful employment sometimes, and then they call and say, ‘Hey, you have an opportunity to win a ton of dough.’ So, that’s also very tempting. You almost have to break the cycle in order to escape.”

Of course, one silver lining to MTV’s reality stars not breaking that cycle is that the network has been able to cash in on some fascinating, long-running character arcs across their shows. We’ve followed the Jersey Shore cast through marriages, divorce, sobriety, the births of their children and yes, The Situation’s stint in jail for tax evasion. We’ve watched CT grow from goofy Real World bad boy to a legitimately scary, troubled guy who once threatened to smash a fellow Challenge castmate’s head in and eat it, to one half of an adorable, Lady and the Tramp-style romance with Diem Brown (who died of cancer in 2014), to the peaceful, charming father figure he is on the series today. As Casey points out, being on the network for a decade has afforded plenty of MTV cast members the opportunity to delve into some deeper topics as well.

“Some of their shows, I think, are great,” she says. “I think that Teen Mom is a really interesting window into someone’s really unique life experience, and I appreciate the way that they followed the story. I’ll never forget how I interviewed Catelynn Baltierra and she told me that there was this concern when that show first aired that it would make teen pregnancy sort of look sexy in a weird way, for lack of a better term. But what they had actually found was that it heavily reduced the number of teen pregnancies in the country. And so I think shows like that are really important for our culture, and it’s been nice to see their marriage continue and to see their family grow. I think she and her husband have been enormously helpful to people for being open about postpartum depression.”

The cast of The Challenge: Total Madness (Photo courtesy of MTV)

But at some point, MTV has to decide just how long it makes sense to keep drawing from the same stable of aging reality stars.

“Their stars are growing and so are their audience,” Casey explains. “And so it’s kind of a precarious position to be in. I think that the Challenge shows are always really interesting. You have Johnny Bananas, who’s sort of their big star of the show — I think he’s almost 40 years old. When they’re sitting around the conference table, I don’t know if they’re thrilled about the idea that their big star of The Challenge is 40, but it is what it is.”

Perhaps in an attempt to get as many seasons of the physically demanding competition show out of favorites like Bananas and CT as they can while they still can, The Challenge has gone from a once- or twice-a-year phenomenon to a nearly year-round event. In the past five years, they’ve managed to squeeze in 10 seasons and three Challenge Champs vs. Stars spinoff seasons.

“My personal take has been that there was a shift,” Meister says. “It seemed like early on, MTV, by definition, was innovative. But there was a shift when Survivor came out, when it felt like producers got panicked about raising the bar or upping the ante, creating more drama. And that created a sense of lower-hanging fruit. And so they started recycling cast, and then that has grown over time, and so now I see it more as almost a panic mode where there’s greater competition now, there’s so many more outlets competing for eyeballs, and rather than innovating, they’re just recycling.”

“My sense is they’re spooked,” she continues. “And I felt like that for a really long time. I remember when we did a show called Road Rules: Viewers’ Revenge, which was an attempt to reboot that series. And they thought they needed to lean on MTV.com, so there was this component where the show was filmed and aired in real time, and then the audience could vote on MTV.com, and they thought this was going to be so great and innovative. And it tanked. It was terrible. So I think that their attempts to be on the cutting edge have maybe been unsuccessful, and so then they go back to what’s safe and has worked and just draws in people who are like, ‘Oh, I recognize that guy from 1998.’ I suppose there’s always hope for innovation, but I don’t see it.”

That’s understandable, given the network’s recent history. While The Challenge is enjoying its best ratings since 2013, other staples that are more geared towards teen audiences have faltered. Last year’s VMAs drew just 1.93 million viewers, an all-time low for the awards show for the third year in a row. And a 2017 attempt to reboot the iconic music-video countdown show Total Request Live was short-lived, demonstrating a total failure to understand how today’s teenagers consume media.

The cast of Jersey Shore Family Vacation (Photo courtesy of MTV)

“When it debuted in 1998, the original series created celebrities of its own in host Carson Daly and the dozens of young artists he introduced,” Pitchfork’s Judy Berman wrote at the time. “The era-defining show eased MTV’s transition from the alt-rock sarcasm it had cultivated with Gen X to the more upbeat and interactive programming with which it would greet a diverse new demographic: millennials. But MTV isn’t the gatekeeper of youth culture it once was. The new TRL is courting an audience born in the 21st century, whose idols rose to fame on YouTube, Vine and Instagram. In its disastrous first week, the reboot proved the network has no idea how to communicate with the viewers who will decide its fate.”

In other words, MTV is no longer just competing with other cable networks for teens’ attention; they’re competing with an endless onslaught of social-media platforms and streaming services that have literally grown up with that audience.

“I think that the network is sort of in a precarious position because they’re trying to remain the leaders of targeting that elusive market, but I think that streaming media and on-demand television shows have sort of thrown a wrench into what has always been kind of their cornerstone,” Casey says. “Now they’re not just fighting against other networks, they’re really fighting against the internet.”

And it’s not just viewers they have to worry about losing to the internet. Becoming a social-media influencer is arguably more attractive these days than getting cast on a reality show, which poses a problem for retaining talent, as well.

“Bloggers are so big, they make so much money personally just having their own show on YouTube versus getting a development deal from a network and then filming something that’s only put into eight episodes,” says Casey. “They lose a bit of their control when they give it to a network, so they have total ownership on their own flexible schedule. They probably get more money, and so it’s more advantageous for them to do something on YouTube.”

One established MTV star who has made the shift from the network to her own self-produced content is Polizzi, who announced on her podcast back in December 2019 that she would be leaving Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. “The main reason [I quit the show] is really I just can’t do it anymore,” she said at the time. “Literally, leaving my kids to film it is really hard on me. I try and quit every single day. I just hate being away from the kids. I don’t like partying three days in a row. It’s just not my life anymore. I want to be home with the kid. It’s just really hard for me to leave the kids and film the show. Our show, Jersey Shore, is about family and making fun of each other and having a good time and laughing and just knowing that it’s all in good fun. Lately, everything is so serious. It’s not about a team anymore. Fans are against one another when it comes to a cast member. I don’t want that. I’m not leaving my kids for days on end to film this show when that’s the result of it. I don’t like the turnout of it. I don’t like the person I’m portrayed as. It’s getting to be a little too much.”

The operative word there is portrayed. Reality TV producers are tasked with distilling hundreds of hours of footage into neat little hour-long storylines packed with maximum tension and “drama,” which more often than not means casting some characters as heroes and others as villains.

Meister is all too aware of the way things get chopped up in MTV’s editing rooms: “The producers always say, ‘Well, you guys know what you’re getting into,’” she says. “But you really do not. You can try to guess what it might be reduced down to in a caricature, but it’s just different when you live it. And sometimes that can work out great. I always feel like I got a really great edit and I almost appeared nicer than I even really am, because that was the persona: this sweet, innocent girl. But for a lot of people, that’s not what happens, and they get reduced to this really terrible version of themselves. And then they can’t get work or have good relationships, et cetera. So, I just notice how the producers have an agenda to generate revenue and create something that a lot of people want to watch. That does not always make for a healthy environment for a cast member.”

The cast of The Hills: New Beginnings (Photo courtesy of MTV)

Like Snooki, Meister reclaimed her own narrative by starting a podcast, and she encourages others to follow suit.

“I’ve noticed that there tends to be, at least on our shows, two types of people that come out of filming,” she says. “One is somebody who really wants to use the experience to grow and to almost kickstart their life. And then there are people who buy into the persona that they see edited together in the episodes and think, ‘Okay, this is who I am now.’ For instance, Johnny Bananas, where he’s, ‘Oh, I see. I’m this guy. I’m the villain on the show.’ So then that becomes his persona and has become very lucrative for him and effective. I don’t know the longevity of that plan. But when I started my podcast and it did well, that’s why I ended up starting a network, because I thought, ‘Oh, I have a template now for all these people that do these shows, reality shows in general, who have an audience, they get tons of followers and don’t know what to do with it.’ And so, things like podcasts and other digital outlets can be great for the opportunity to produce yourself. If you’re insistent on being in the entertainment industry, I would go down that road of you being empowered enough to create your own stuff instead of being at the mercy of the producers who have a different agenda than the cast.”

Both Casey and Meister feel that the network would be best served by fully embracing its older millennial audience and trying to recapture the same tone or social relevance of early seasons of The Real World.

“I think what they need to do is to kind of lean into the fact that their demographic has grown a little bit and show vintage episodes of the very shows that sort of put them on the map,” Casey says. “I think it would be incredibly powerful to air the very first season of The Real World and the San Francisco season of The Real World. The first season really set the tone for unscripted TV, and you have someone like Norman Korpi who was the first person ever on television to admit that he was openly gay. How many people have come to him in the last 26 years now since it aired to say, ‘You’re the first person I ever saw that admitted they were gay, and now I feel free to be open about who I am’? I think that it would be nice to remind people of what a spectacular show it is and what it has done for society.”

“If I had a wish, I would wish for the beautiful and still compelling stories that we saw early on,” Meister adds. “Even John Murray, who owns Bunim/Murray [production company behind The Real World and The Challenge], when he talks about Real World, he still hangs his hat on the Pedro season, which was the third season of the show. And I don’t know why they herald that as so poignant and amazing, and then stop doing it. So, if I had a wish, I would wish that they would return to those narrative-driven stories that are still clickbait-y and compelling, but are just better than ‘somebody pulled somebody’s top off and now they’re making out.’”

Ultimately, Casey agrees, it’s that human-interest element that keeps MTV viewers tuning in well into their 30s — and why, despite the disappearing teen demographic, the network isn’t in any serious danger quite yet. “You’re watching drama within the episodes, but you’re also seeing someone’s life arc,” she says. “And I think that that’s why people remain committed to watching shows like that, even though they may have outgrown the demographic that the network really focuses on.”

“MTV is such an incredible force in our culture, and I can’t imagine a world without MTV,” she adds. “And I think that if they continue to lean into the things that really made them a success, then they can just sort of lean into an older demographic and tweak it.”