Thursday, May 28, 2009
Inside the HILLS and the CITY!
MTV Gets Real (Sort of)
by Karl Taro Greenfeld May 2009 Issue
When tweens tire of Nickelodeon and Disney, where will they go? MTV hopes the formula that launched The Hills and The City can lure teenagers away from Facebook and Twitter...and back to their televisions.
UPHILL BATTLE Lauren Conrad (left), Whitney Port, and Adam DiVello.
Photograph by: Williams + Hirakawa
Adam Divello leans forward on a black leather sofa in the MTV offices in Santa Monica, California, watching an almost-finished version of an episode of his hit show The Hills. An editing crew is reassembling footage of attractive young men and women meeting one another in bars, nightclubs, and apartments and exchanging the freighted glares and longing glances that pass for drama in the show and its spinoff, The City, which is set in Manhattan.
Some think America has had enough of Heidi, Spencer, and The Hills’ frenemies.DiVello, the 40-year-old creator and executive producer of the programs—he’s also co-creator of Laguna Beach, the ur-show that gave birth to the genre—has seen these clips several times. He’s now working on a slightly problematic scene: Audrina, a friend of star Lauren Conrad’s (or L.C., as she’s known in Us, People, OK, and In Touch magazines), has heard a rumor that Lauren has slept with Audrina’s boyfriend. DiVello feels that the shot, in which Audrina’s co-worker reacts to this dismaying news, lacks the requisite emotional clarity, so he asks the editor to substitute another take, “maybe something from earlier in the conversation.” Such is the high-pressure world of meta-reality. (Translation: “Shows that play somewhere between scripted drama and reality,” in the words of Brian Graden, president of programming at MTV and VH1.) But in real reality, the pressing question isn’t whether Lauren and Audrina will ever be friends again, but whether that genre of pseudo-reality TV, which DiVello helped create, can sustain itself.
The Hills and its progeny have been MTV’s only bona fide hits in recent years; the season-three finale, in 2007, was its highest-rated telecast ever, with 4.6 million viewers, and it established the series as the No. 1 cable show among viewers ages 12 to 34. But in the fourth quarter of 2008, MTV saw its overall viewership in that coveted demographic drop 23 percent—losing out not to other networks but to other mediums like online social networks. So MTV is doubling down on meta-reality. It announced that it will launch 16 new shows this year, including Taking the Stage—a clone of The City and The Hills—about high-school kids.
The formula, DiVello insists, is still basic: “Everyone wants to know what those alpha kids are up to.”It’s a risky strategy. With these shows, MTV is betting on a particularly elusive sliver of the youth demographic: 18- to 24-year-olds. Yet Graden argues that the programs tap into today’s youth culture in a way prepackaged sitcoms no longer can. “Once you hit 15, 16, you are onto Facebook, onto Twitter, so this is the first generation that has already published the story of their life in real time,” he says. “These shows are what they wish their story was—with pictures they choose, with songs they choose, with their friends.” Of course, as that audience fragments, it’s not enough just to develop a hit show for television; it’s essential to capitalize on the remaining viewers by whatever means necessary.
The success of The Hills, coinciding with falling ratings elsewhere on the network, prompted MTV to build out a multiplatform consumer franchise that interacts with—and sucks revenue from—its fans through mobile phones, digital downloads of music, and the Web. The network pioneered a kind of reverse-product placement through a website called SeenonMTV, which allows viewers to log on, search by episode, and buy the clothes that Conrad or Whitney Port (former co-star of The Hills and now star of The City) are wearing. The site currently delivers more than 30 million pageviews a month, with an average customer order of $200 and annual revenue in the $20 million range, money that is shared with MTV’s online retail partners. The network went even further by launching a fashion line by Conrad, an aspiring designer. That business generated $5 million to $10 million in annual revenue, with the brand available in more than 250 retail boutiques around the country. There’s an interactive community called the Virtual Hills, where fans build avatars, or online characters, and communicate with the actual cast members, design their own fashions, and hang out with other fans. The Hills is also MTV’s bestselling DVD series; with nearly 2 million units sold—numbers on a par with those of The Sopranos. MTV execs are hoping that Taking the Stage, which debuted in March, will replicate, or at least reinforce, the prior shows’ track records. It’s set in a Cincinnati high school for the performing arts, where, Graden explains, “all the kids are beautiful, but it’s more urban.” He argues that, despite MTV’s struggles of late, “there is still space for a strong brand devoted to reflecting this generation.” With all the technology out there, he believes, “nobody has positioned themselves as the dominant voice of this generation. Why can’t that be MTV? It worked for the last generation.”
Viacom, MTV’s parent company, had a disastrous fourth quarter and certainly needs the bottom-line bump of a hit series. What the network needs to prove is that Taking the Stage can provide this at a time when interest in The Hills is on the wane. Between its peak, in season three, and season four (which ended in December), the show lost a quarter of its viewers, according to Nielsen.
In March, Conrad announced that she was putting her fashion line on hiatus. The City is struggling too: Average viewership is 1.38 million an episode, half of The Hills’ at its lowest.But failure is not a reality, meta- or otherwise, that either MTV or DiVello entertains—at least not now. At a recent shoot for The City, the director and producers sat hunched behind a table. They watched the cast members on four microwave-size digital monitors with toaster-oven-size screens showing the scene from four different angles. They relayed directions to the camera operators and production assistants—“See if there’s steam coming from that coffee cup,” “Get that guy away from Whitney”—while an assistant producer typed the dialogue as she listened to it through an earpiece. The vast majority of what was said was of no interest to anyone; DiVello has learned to be patient with his kids, watching and waiting and editing and dubbing over dialogue so that the story will come through in the end.“I try to tell them not to worry, that sometimes they’ll look better than others,” he tells me after I ask how a meeting went with a distraught Whitney. She was upset, concerned that she would look like a bad girlfriend for showing up late for a club gig that her boyfriend’s band was playing. “Adam and I text all day long,” she tells me. “I think of most 40-year-old men, and I don’t think they have the same understanding.... He just knows what’s going on. We just have to pretty much put all our trust in Adam.”