MTV (VIA) has spent nearly all of its first 25 years trying to capture the attention of young people. But as viewers age, they often move to other TV offerings or entirely different media. John Sykes, president of network development at MTV Networks and one of MTV's founding executives, says the cable pioneer can't afford to let them go. That's why his boss, MTV CEO Judy McGrath, asked her old friend to create a unit dedicated to developing new outlets, from cable channels to broadband sites, for the 35- to 50-year-old crowd.
"More than half the American public is 35 and older, and they dominate the wealth in this country," says Sykes. "We want to be able to reach that audience instead of watching them fall off a cliff after they leave some of our existing channels." Consider that the viewers who tuned into MTV's Nickelodeon channel from its start in 1979 are now the parents of Nick viewers.
"UNIQUE WAY." A half-dozen new channels, focusing on lifestyle, money, and health, are in development that will target "late X'ers and early boomers," says Sykes. He declines to comment on reports that Comcast (CMCSA), the nation's largest operator and the biggest distributor of MTV's existing channels, will be a partner on these new ventures.
Getting distribution for new TV outlets is no easy task since more than 400 channels are already on cable and satellite systems focusing on every imaginable niche. And plenty of them are aggressively trying to connect with boomers, from HGTV to CNBC (GE) (see BW Online, 1/31/06, "MTV Networks' Mobile Move").
"The secret for MTV will be not to duplicate what's there but to come up with their own unique way," says Al Lieberman, executive director of Entertainment, Media & Telecommunication program at the Stern School of Business at New York University. "It's not like coming up with content and then finding audience. It's identifying an audience and tailoring content to that group."
BEYOND THE BEAVER. MTV, too, sees a way to have a much more fun approach with this older audience. "During our parents' era, somebody in this age range looked like Hugh Beaumont [who played Ward Cleaver] from Leave It to Beaver," says Sykes, 50. "Today's 35- to 50-year-olds are acting younger than ever before, and that's why we think we can speak to them with an attitude. MTV wants to move through our viewers' lives like a rabbit through a snake."
Sykes started his career at MTV doing promotions, and at one point CEO McGrath worked for him. One of Sykes's earlier tasks was going up to rock stars at concerts and get them to say "I want my MTV" on camera. In the mid-1980s, he left to work for talent mogul Michael Ovitz at CAA and then for the Chrysalis/EMI music labels. He returned to MTV in the 1990s, where he ran VH1 for eight years and helped develop the popular Behind the Music series.
After the merger of Viacom and CBS, Sykes was tapped to run Infinity Radio at a time when ad sales plummeted and division's performance became a drag on Viacom's stock. Last year, McGrath asked him to come back to MTV to help run what is being called MTVNext.
And it may be that Sykes has an easier job than his cohorts, who are trying to lure kids, an audience that has become increasingly hard to capture. "The older populations are cocooning," says Stern's Lieberman. "They aren't out running around or going to movies. They're home in front of their new flat-panel TVs." Indeed, Nielsen Media Research shows that people in the 35 to 50 range are watching even more TV these days and that they represent the fastest-growing segment on the Web. "We need to fish where the fish are," says Sykes. By Tom Lowry in New York