TV programming veteran guiding changes at MTV
By DAVID BAUDER
The Associated PressFirst published May 17 2014 01:01AM
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New York • When the creative minds at MTV get together, Susanne Daniels must seem like the adult in the room.
It’s not like she’s chaperoning spring break. But MTV has always seemed as much a state of mind as a television network, a place known best for Osbournes, jackasses and carefree Jersey beach house dwellers.
Now MTV is maturing into a more traditional television network with a broad mix of scripted and reality programming and, in Daniels, has a seasoned television executive in charge of content. Since starting in the business as Lorne Michaels’ assistant, Daniels has worked at ABC, Fox, Lifetime, OWN and — most important for MTV — the former WB network during the glory years of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson’s Creek."
Daniels’ work developing scripted shows, never an MTV priority before "Teen Wolf," is bearing fruit with the just-premiered comedy "Faking It" and the upcoming family drama "Finding Carter."
A desire to expand scripted offerings was a key factor in Daniels’ hiring as head of programming in 2012, said Stephen Friedman, MTV president.
"Susanne brings a gravitas in terms of bringing out a story, whether it’s in our reality shows or scripted programming, that pushes the team to a new level," he said. Her contacts are as important as her judgment; Daniels’ presence is convincing storytellers who might not have previously considered MTV that the network is serious about finding comedies and dramas.
Daniels is beyond the age of MTV’s target viewer (most adults are), but she and her television-producer husband, Greg Daniels, have a test audience of three teenagers at home.
"The irony is that at Lifetime and OWN I was supervising programming for people like myself — women 25 to 54 — and I wasn’t having nearly as much fun," she said.
"Finding Carter" is a potential game-changer. The show, which begins in July, features a 16-year-old girl who learns that the woman she thought was her mother abducted her at age 3, and is suddenly sent to live with a mother, father, twin sister and little brother she doesn’t know. The promising pilot moves quickly beyond that intriguing premise to add all sorts of complications.
"What if the family you think is your family is not your family?" Daniels said. "That is the ultimate drama for a teenager."
The success of shows like "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones" indicates that shows that seem to have nerd appeal can be broad successes, and young audiences can appreciate intricate, involved plotlines, Friedman said. To that end, MTV has optioned the fantasy book series "Shannara" for a series, signing the creators of "Smallville" to adapt it.
MTV relentlessly monitors the tastes of its target audience since it is faced with the constant pressure of appealing to a young demographic that constantly turns over. One surprise — so much so that Daniels asked to recheck the figures — was that many teenagers said they liked procedurals like "Law & Order." Applying that knowledge to MTV’s development begat "Eye Candy," a series on order that follows a group of hackers that turns into a New York cyber police unit.
A cop show on MTV? How CBS. Some of the ideas in MTV’s pipeline will feel familiar to an avid TV watcher. "Snack Off," a game in which contestants try to create an appetizing meal out of lousy snack food, feels like something off the Food Network. "Slednecks," about a group of rowdy young people, is set in Alaska, which now seems to have as many reality shows as citizens.
Daniels said she won’t be scared from ideas just because they recall others. "I’ll never not do a show about Alaska if there are all these shows about Alaska, if I think I have the best show about Alaska," she said.
MTV’s ratings have slipped recently. So far this year, the network is averaging 802,000 viewers in prime time, 361,000 in the target demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds, the Nielsen company said. The network has dropped three straight years since hitting 1.3 million viewers and 668,000 in the young demo during the same time period in 2011.
The failure to create another sensation on the magnitude of "Jersey Shore" or the fading teen pregnancy franchise is a big reason.
MTV is pinning its reality hopes on the sober "One Bad Choice," which tells stories of young people whose lives were altered by one fateful decision, and the less sober "Slednecks." The latter feels like "Buckwild" on ice, a way to re-create the budding hit that ended last year after the death of a cast member.
Daniels revamped "Real World" this season after considering ending MTV’s longest-running series. The house full of young people, all of whom recently ended relationships, was joined in midseason by all of the characters’ exes. Shaken well, drama ensued.
"It’s not easy to walk into someplace and say, ‘I think I’m going to kill a 28-year-old franchise,’ " she said.
MTV said ratings are up among young people at the 10 p.m. weekday time slot, where most new programming is showcased. "Teen Wolf" had its biggest audience in its just-concluded third season. Friedman notes that "Teen Wolf" was streamed digitally more than 58 million times, a classic good news-bad news scenario. It shows fans are interested, but young people are becoming used to watching shows when they want them, which depresses traditional time slot ratings.
The network is in the process of hiring an editorial director to give MTV more live reports on breaking cultural news in the hope of getting more people watching instead of just streaming, he said.