Changing Media, Changing Audiences

Thursday, April 1, 2004
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
20 Ames Street


Betsy Frank, executive vice president for research and planning at MTV Networks, will discuss the latest research on television-viewing, the emergence of niche audiences, the battle for advertising between broadcast and cable networks, and the whereabouts of audience members in the 18-26 age group (so crucial to advertisers). MTV networks include MTV, MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, TV Land, Spike and Comedy Central.


Betsy Frank joined MTV Networks in 1997 from Zenith Media Services, the media arm of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, where she had worked since 1978. She is on the board of governors of the International Radio and Television Society and the Advertising Research Foundation.

Moderator: Henry Jenkins is the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities and director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.


BETSY FRANK said MTV Networks is not only an entertainment company, but first and foremost a marketer of brands. Over the years, the company has successfully built its brands - including MTV, MTV2, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite and Spike TV - by creating "passionate relationships" with consumers. MTV Networks currently faces the tough challenge, she said, of staying relevant to audiences who have more viewing choices and control than ever before.

Frank stressed the importance of consumer research to MTV, which relies heavily on innovative ways for getting to know young people. In order to reach an authentic understanding of their audiences, MTV uses untraditional, and sometimes extreme, methods from conducting focus groups at sports events or malls to measuring viewers' brainwave activity as they watch music videos. One recent experiment involved depriving loyal viewers from watching MTV or visiting the MTV website, and observing the effects on the teenagers' social lives.

Although consumer insights drive the content and style of the network, they do not replace creativity. Their objective is not to overanalyze research, but to make it a part of the creative process. Frank believes that good research is also a sign of commitment and respect towards their viewers; it is a drive to understand audiences as individual human beings rather than generic targets.

Research at MTV, Frank said, is not a backroom operation.

Next, Frank discussed the radical changes in viewing habits that appeared in the 2003 television season. Broadcast networks performed poorly - in fact, the broadcast share of November sweeps was under 50 percent for the first time. Meanwhile, cable ratings continued to climb.

Frank believes these changes were rooted in the viewing behavior of a group called "media-actives," viewers born since the mid-1970s who have never known a world without cable TV, videogames, and the Internet. They grew up with a "what I want, when I want it" attitude towards entertainment and media, and as a result take a more active role in media selection than previous generations.

MTV once predicted that broadcast networks would have to adapt to this young audience as they matured and became the mainstream. Instead, it seems that they are already setting the pace. Older generations appear to have adopted the media-actives' behavior more readily than anticipated.

Frank identified four key factors that appear to be influencing these shifting viewing patterns, which define what young people look for when watching television:

1. "The Next New Thing." First of all, the younger generation is drawn to continuous new program introductions, or "the next new thing," which cable programming more often provides. Cable constantly premieres new shows with shorter seasons and fewer episodes of a series. Despite its current attempts at launching new series year-round, broadcast networks still focus on the fall season. Moreover, broadcast shows are ideally created to run forever.

Younger viewers are also drawn to programming that refreshes often. This partly explains the popularity of reality shows such as The Real World, Survivor, or The Bachelor, which "reboot" every season with new casts and locales.

2. "On My Terms." The second factor is the viewers' need to watch "on their terms." As videogames, DVDs, and the Web have become more appealing, young people have pushed their TV viewing later into the night. The traditional "prime time" represents a decreasing share of their viewing. In fact, MTV does not even start its so-called prime time until 10 pm, with "The 10 Spot." Furthermore, cable frequently airs repeats and marathons. Some broadcasters have begun to imitate this; for example, the WB reruns its prime shows on Sunday afternoons.

3. "Real Life versus 'Reel Life.'" The third factor is the appeal of watching "real life versus reel life." The boundaries between television and the actual world are increasingly blurred, and reality TV is not the only manifestation of this. Media content has become more hands-on via interactive digital technology, and more easily transferable and shared. As a result, anyone or anything could end up on TV. Meanwhile, as real people are elevated to the level of celebrities, celebrities are brought down to earth with shows like Punk'd and Newlyweds.

This audience also wants information that can be integrated into their lives. They want to be educated as well as entertained. On shows such as CSI or Forensic Files, knowledge is the star. The rise of how-to programming such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Trading Spaces, and Extreme Makeovers reflects this generation's belief that "If I don't like things the way they are, I can change or customize them."

4. "The Search for Diversity." Finally, this generation searches for variety and diversity. In 2003, the variety of cable networks and cable originals blossomed. There was also more comfort in talking about race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

In summary, the lesson of 2003 from a viewer perspective is that young people are driving programming trends, and their parents are not far behind. All viewers recognize that there is programming that appeals to them across the spectrum, and that they can pick and choose networks and shows that meet their needs.

Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, calls young people "information impressionists," Frank explained, because of the way they go to different sources for news, and then reassemble it in a way that is relevant and convenient. This means, for example, combining The Daily Show and Yahoo with word-of-mouth to feel informed.

Frank said we could broaden this notion and consider viewers as "media impressionists," choosing programs that are relevant to them, without caring much about what channels they are watching.


HENRY JENKINS, Comparative Media Studies director: What exactly does the word "participation" mean in an MTV context? Media companies seem to be sending mixed signals. Networks want us to use new communication technologies to participate, encouraging us to be grassroots niche marketers for the content they are producing, but they are against it in other ways. What kinds of participation is MTV invested in? For example, if a loyal viewer of MTV wanted to share his enthusiasm by circulating downloaded media content, is that a form of participation MTV is willing to accept?

FRANK: MTV accepts content sharing when it functions as promotion. There are similar issues with video-on-demand. Ideally, MTV programs on demand will make people want to watch the regular channel more as well. Anything that makes people less inclined to watch the channel is problematic, because the advertising is how we make money.

JENKINS: The meaning of "diversity" also seems to be in dispute. Do we really live in a world with so many choices, or are certain ideas pushed forward aggressively while others are withheld? Is there more that could be done to represent actual diversity of viewpoints rather than of demographics?

FRANK: I believe it depends on who owns the media outlets, and what they allow or try to achieve.

JENKINS: Another area that interests me is the issue of relevance. I agree that MTV Networks, with the "Rock the Vote" campaign, or Linda Ellerbee's work at Nickelodeon, has done a better job at bringing public affairs issues to this generation than the mainstream media. Can you talk more about what you mean by "relevance"? What are the implications of young people getting their news from entertainment programs?

FRANK: From comedy shows like The Daily Show, young people tend to only get the stereotypes of political figures. On MTV, we try to do actual interviews with newsworthy people. We do a lot of public affairs polling of young people for MTV News. We make programs that attempt to impart real knowledge of the issues, and get young people involved.

DAVID THORBURN, MIT Communications Forum director: Can you tell us more about the MTV deprivation experiments?

FRANK: We got the idea from Pizza Hut, which conducted an experiment where subjects were not allowed to eat pizza for a month. They learned a lot about what pizza meant to these people.

We decided to see what would happen if we took MTV away. We recruited 50 people who swore not to watch any MTV or visit for one month. Everyone kept diaries, and used tape recorders and cameras to record their activities. The results were unbelievable. We got such rich data from this small sample of people. We did study a small sample, so this is not something we'll project to the million homes that get MTV.

Some people dropped out. Others felt alienated because they were deprived of a certain medium. They felt at a social disadvantage compared to their peers because they couldn't join in conversations. They didn't know much about new movies coming out.

HOLLAND WILDE, Pencilogic: Nice presentation. I appreciate it, but I think if you were a priest you'd be hauled out of here as a pedophile.

This cradle-to-grave marketing strategy, in which you microdesign media into a vehicle for aggressive consumption, really borders on corporate pedophilia. I am also guessing you have other research that implicates MTV in such cause-and-effect concerns as teen suicide, teen plastic surgery, teen obesity, and teen debt. My question is, how would MTV change if every viewer were your 12-year-old daughter?

FRANK: I don't have a 12-year-old daughter. Feel free to ask me any questions you want. I have a different opinion of what MTV Networks is providing to the various audiences that we serve.

I have no qualms about MTV programming. We provide entertainment and information. Your phrase, 'corporate pedophilia,' is certainly one I haven't heard before, but I really think your concern for the children of America is unfounded. I think you can sleep easy tonight and know they'll be okay.

THORBURN: I want to encourage the audience to ask hard questions, but let's be more reasonable in the way we label our guests. This is not an acceptable way to converse with someone, and it makes serious disagreement and argument almost impossible. We need to aim for a level of civility and personal respect in these forums.

QUESTION: I wouldn't ask a question in that way, but I do share some of the concerns that inform that question: the fact that advertising is directed at 12 year olds.

But, my question is about the phenomenon of The Daily Show being a program where young people are allegedly getting useful political information. Does your research show who's watching it and what they are gleaning from it?

FRANK: The Daily Show is primarily a comedy show, but several newsworthy political figures have appeared on the program. Ratings for the Daily Show are at an all-time high, with a concentration of young men, 18-34. But that's really the profile of Comedy Central. Stewart's show doesn't attract an audience whose profile is different from that of Comedy Central.

I know Jon Stewart sees himself as only one part of how young people get information. He is certainly cynical and a little dark, but very funny. I think he's happy to be doing a show where he can say what he wants. There was a rumor that he might go to over to a broadcast network, maybe to CBS, but he felt he'd lose that freedom of expression.

JENKINS: Did you want to address the comment about young children and advertising?

FRANK: Not to make this worse, but Nickelodeon's target audience is 4 to 11. There are a lot of things being done now in terms of looking at our own practices and licensed products seriously, with social issues in mind. For example, we are very conscious of youth obesity, and we are creating a pro-social initiative to encourage kids to be more active, such as with Nickelodeon's "Let's Just Play" campaign.

CLARA FERNANDEZ, CMS graduate student: How did you choose the sample of people for your MTV deprivation experiments? There are so many other channels and outlets, how could anyone feel deprived in such a heavily populated mediascape?

FRANK: We chose heavy viewers of MTV, people who watched a certain number of hours per week. They were chosen through a random telephone sample. I think I made it clear that this was not a representative sample in any way of the entire viewing audience.

QUESTION: IF you were a chief strategist at a broadcast network and you are given this marketing data about niches that indicates you must "differentiate or die," will that preclude you from creating the big hit shows such as the MASH or Seinfeld of this year because the trend takes you away from that kind of broad programming?

FRANK: I think the broadcast model is flawed, and I think there are things that could change. One of the biggest issues for the broadcast networks is the notion of prime time. There is this outcry that young men 18-34 are not watching television, but the fact is that the declines are around those prime-time slots, three hours a night and four on Sunday. The fact is that they are watching plenty of television.

If I were a broadcast network, I would experiment by pushing so-called "late night" to midnight instead of 11; I would show so-called prime-time shows later; I would try as much as possible

Keep in mind, that even though cable television is growing as an entity, on any given night a big broadcaster still has the largest audience. They need to take some risky moves, but they still get big audiences. I think they'll figure it out.

QUESTION: Do you share your research with other companies?

FRANK: We share freely with other Viacom companies, but other channels like CBS aren't as interested in MTV research, because they are interested in different types of viewers.

JENKINS: What is the impact of having an entire series on DVD?

FRANK: We haven't seen a huge impact on our own audiences yet. We look at DVD as a positive means of promotion. However, we are aware that watching DVDs could be taking time away from watching our networks' programming.

QUESTION: Why did MTV move away from showing music videos to series programming?

FRANK: It all began with The Real World, the first of the long-form shows. It was primarily a business decision. Music videos, which are considered short-form programming, get a rating of 0.5 percent and have a hard time retaining viewers. Long-form programming means that viewers stay with the channel for at least 30 minutes, which helps increase ratings.

In the U.S., MTV doesn't have much competition in showing music videos, so the brand name still means a lot. In countries like the UK, where dozens of other channels provide music videos, the MTV brand means less. However, it gets its brand recognition through original shows like The Real World.

TODD ROSE, MIT Sloan School: You alluded to video-on-demand as a threat to the advertising-based business model of current programming, but at the same time it provides opportunities for licensing content and introducing MTV to new audiences. Do you perceive it to be more of a threat or opportunity? How will it affect programming decisions?

FRANK: We won't fight video-on-demand because the cable operators love it, and it increases viewer satisfaction. Short-form programming actually does better on demand, because you can request something for a short amount of time.

ALEX REITMAN, MIT Department of Urban Studies: Where did the name "pro-social" programming come from? Does it imply that other programming is anti-social? Can you tell us more about your networks' pro-social initiatives?

FRANK: MTV Networks strongly believes every network has to do something positive and informative for their audiences. MTV's pro-social programs are not being done for the ratings. For example, last year we had a forum with Colin Powell that drew low ratings, even though it received much attention from the press. VH1 has always been active with the "Save the Music" campaign to bring music programs into schools. Spike TV has a men's health initiative.

QUESTION: Cable shows tend to run for a few seasons, while broadcast networks try to run their shows forever. What are your opinions of long-run shows, and why don't your networks produce them?

FRANK: The broadcast model favors long-run shows. MTV's young audience tends to have a quick burnout. For example, The Osbournes was the hottest show on TV in its first season, but the second year was not the same.

KAREN KWAN, MIT Sloan School: Can you talk about research in overseas markets, such as for MTV Asia or Latin America? What trends do you see happening around the world, but are not happening in the U.S.?

FRANK: I'm not too familiar with MTV international channels. We did a study a few years ago on how the notion of "cool" gets translated around the world. Even with things like the Internet, there are trends that will always be unique to one country or area.