Entertainment A-List 2010

Entertainment A-List No. 8: MTV/Jersey Shore

By Letting Reality Series' 'Guidos' and 'Guidettes' Speak for Themselves, Network Drew Millions of Viewers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Last winter, Americans flocked to an unlikely place: the Jersey Shore.

When the January finale of MTV's hit series about a group of fist-pumping, six-pack-flaunting, spray-tanned, self-proclaimed "guidos" and "guidettes" drew 4.8 million viewers, it was more than a record-breaking ratings event for MTV. It was also a transitional moment in the nearly 30-year history of the Viacom-owned network -- a sign that it had finally transitioned the promise of "I Want My MTV" from music videos to reality programming for young audiences. Weeks later, MTV ushered in a redo of its iconic logo, turning it into a blank canvas to house images of its reality talent, like "Jersey Shore" favorite Snooki.

Tina Exarhos, exec VP-marketing, MTV
Tina Exarhos, exec VP-marketing, MTV
The success of "Jersey Shore" was a far cry from where MTV was in the third quarter of 2009: smack-dab in the middle of a ratings slump. The network hadn't seen an up year since the popularity of "The Osbournes" in 2005.

"There's so much talk in the ad community about where to place your spend, how much to use search, and Facebook and other social media," said Tina Exarhos, who has served as MTV's exec VP-marketing for a decade and has worked at MTV Networks since 1986. "But I can say -- because we do it all -- it's a very different scenario for every franchise you're launching."

For "Jersey Shore," launching the series wasn't about lengthy or expensive marketing pushes. Big outlays were traded for hypertargeted outreach. Three weeks before launch, promos began airing on MTV's highest-rated shows at the time, "The Hills" and "The City." The network also built up a robust section devoted to the show on MTV.com, set up a Facebook presence and conducted a flight of cable TV ads on shows such as Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise to juice awareness.

From there, the strategy was to let the outspoken cast members speak for themselves, and to foster fan enthusiasm.

"Snooki took the promo right away and posted it on YouTube and elsewhere, and within an hour there was a Gawker piece saying, 'This is the best thing we've ever seen and we can't wait for it,'" Ms. Exarhos said.

The Dec. 3 launch of the show took in 1.4 million viewers, but there was a major marketing hiccup almost immediately when big-name advertisers from Domino's to Dell publicly yanked their ads, and several Italian-American-heritage groups pressured sponsors to do the same. A New Jersey senator even sent a letter to parent Viacom, asking it to cancel the show for its "offensive, inaccurate" portrayal of Italian-Americans.

Rather than panic over the controversy -- and the loss of valuable ad revenue -- MTV remained focused on the fans. "We took some of the criticism that was coming from different communities seriously," Ms. Exarhos said, "but at the end of the day, the viewers were in love with the show immediately."

Number of viewers for premiere of "Jersey Shore"
Number of viewers for finale
That calm attitude proved to be the right one when certain advertisers came back and new ones signed on after seeing the show's popularity. MTV built momentum during the season by packing its website with fresh content, such as unaired clips and blog posts from the cast members, "Jersey Shore" e-cards and a "merch" store at Zazzle.com featuring everything from tank tops to aprons.

The series expanded its viewership dramatically with each consecutive episode and as its stars made headlines in gossip magazines, tripling the number of eyeballs the premiere got with the finale. The second season of the "Jersey Shore" is filming now, and the network is already eyeing exporting Snooki and friends to air internationally.

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