LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Restive about losing its young, desirable TV viewers to YouTube and MySpace, MTV Networks is heading for "The Hills."
In a first-of-its-kind deal for the Viacom-owned cable channel, MTV will debut 12 episodes of a new, teen vampire-themed web series called "Valemont" within an advertising pod at the start of "The Hills" before moving the show to its permanent home on MTV.com.
Stakes, if you will, are high: While MTV Networks' cable channel has flourished, MTV.com has struggled to build a mass audience on par with social-media websites such as YouTube or Facebook, let alone its own channel.
For example, MTV's most recently completed season of its hit reality show "The Hills" was the No. 1 show among females ages 12 to 34. Last season's "Hills" finale alone netted some 2.6 million viewers.
By comparison, according to web metrics firm Quantcast, MTV.com averages only 4.2 million visitors each month.
Specific audience for brands
With "Valemont," MTV is essentially selling three minutes of advertising time to Electric Farm Entertainment, a production company that specializes in online shows. Two and a half minutes of each "Valemont" webisode will advance the storyline, with the final 30 seconds given over to a presenting sponsor. Electric Farm co-produced last year's web series "Gemini Division" with NBC Universal's Digital Studio.
John Shea, exec VP of integrated marketing and brand partnerships at MTV Networks, said the strategy with "Valemont" is to offers brands a highly specific, young, female-skewing audience while giving MTV.com a shot at more visitors.
"Compared to the YouTubes of the world, we don't have the same scale; our traffic is not as robust," Mr. Shea said. "But in terms of targeted media, that is, speaking to a slice of what those larger portals get, we do have a robust business."
According to Quantcast, nearly a third of MTV.com's audience is younger than 18 years old, and more than 40% of it is between 18 and 34. ComScore recently set the average age of an MTV.com visitor just shy of 25 years old.
Playing off the recent success of the vampire film "Twilight," which has grossed just less than $325 million worldwide, "Valemont" also hopes to profit from the public's strong interest in those with severe allergies to garlic: It's about an 18-year-old girl who discovers that her older brother -- murdered while attending an elite liberal arts college -- was actually done in by vampires nesting on fraternity row.
"If 'Buffy' were to pledge a sorority, you're in the right vein," said Stan Rogow, one of the principals in Electric Farm, in summing up the series.
In the past year, Mr. Shea noted, MTV has been experimenting with driving on-air viewers online via advertising. He pointed to last year's deal with Dove beauty products, which also sought to leverage the "Hills" audience. During episodes of "The Hills" that were broadcast last March, MTV debuted a Dove-sponsored micro-series starring Alicia Keys to mixed results. The five "Fresh Takes" episodes that aired retained an astonishingly high percentage of their viewers: In its first week, 97% of the audience was still watching after the first minute of the three-minute episode. The next week, it achieved a nearly perfect 99% retention vs. the prior minute of content, according to MTV's data.
"The common denominator is that they want to make sure the commercial isn't skipped, and we want to make sure our audience isn't tuning out during commercial breaks or leaving," said Mr. Shea. "We want to keep them there."
But despite "Fresh Takes'" ability to hang on to viewers, it did not succeed in sending as many MTV viewers online to MTV.com as it had hoped. Mr. Shea declined to disclose how many viewers clicked over to the Dove online content, but he allowed that "the [online] numbers were not as much as we expected, because there wasn't much of a 'there' there, on the other end."
This time around, "the plan is for the story to largely play out online," Mr. Shea said, adding that "it was also important to find a partner [in Electric Farm] ... who knows how to build a deep, intricate story online."