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Interview: Todd Cunningham

Todd Cunningham is Senior Vice President of Strategy and Planning for MTV.

In general terms, can you describe the research department at MTV?

It's a team of anywhere between--and this varies from year to year because of interns and things--between 10 and 16 or 17 of us, average age around 26 years old. We feel that's really important, since we're talking to a young audience and trying to evangelize those findings back to the senior executives within the company. . . .We're really young, really bright, certainly all plugged in, and feverish to . . . be the first one to share something that we know. So I think that that quality is really important, both within our group, and within the company at large--to make sure that we let people know the things that we've learned and try to share insights within it.

How good are you?

I think--really good. We're really effective. There's no question that the learnings that we have are integral into the double-check process, for programming, for marketing, for any types of messaging that we have, and also a lot of our partner relationships, too. . . . We are so plugged into this audience in a way that is unique to what's happening in television and also with many marketers, that we're actually allowed to be able to go out and talk about social issues and kind of pro-social issues and news types of things that many other organizations don't get the opportunity to do. Young people are not typically in the habit of reading newspapers. They certainly go online and find out about news. But in terms of television, they don't watch national news shows as often.

So they look to us for insight and a reflection of the kinds of things that they're really grappling with. So things like our "Choose or Lose" efforts and helping them to get registered to vote and know the issues behind the candidates and understanding the candidates better is a big priority for us, as well as the "Fight for Your Rights" campaign and things like that, which we tackle.

Our charge and excitement comes whenever we're able to get the senior executives and other programming folk within the company to think exactly the way a teenager would In qualitative terms, how good is MTV? How big is this effort?

The research efforts at MTV are certainly legendary. Ever since the very beginning, there's been a kind of feverish addiction to research and understanding young people. That's been embraced from the very top down--from our president, Judy McGrath. All the way throughout the organization, there's a signal to everyone that research is important. In virtually every meeting that we have, research kicks the meeting off. There's a signal right there to the organization that, "Hey, you've got to pay attention to what the viewers are about and what kinds of things are happening with them," whether it be shifts in the ratings, shifts in, kind of viewership behavior and patterns, to the more qualitative kind of touchy-feely things of attitudinal changes and things that.

So since the beginning it's been that way. And early on, before MTV even had ratings, a big part of what separated MTV from the pack of the other competitors out there was its knowledge of the audience, and its mastery of understanding why an advertiser or why anyone who wanted to be affiliated with this brand would want to be there, because they understood the audience so well.

Talk about some of the research projects and activities that you do.

Certainly we do a great deal of traditional research. With a brand this size, it's imperative to use a lot of tried and true methods which are out there. Why reinvent the wheel? However, we do a lot of unique and different kinds of research. Some research straddles the line. . . . We do more than 200 focus groups a year. . . .

For us, it's imperative that we're out there with them all the time, and we're not actually not doing them in traditional ways all the time. We go and we test shows in unique, kind of state-of-the-art facilities. We also do focus groups in basketball courts; we do them in convenience store parking lots; we're doing them in pizza parlors. We're doing them in really unique places, and a lot of things in the home. That brings me to another study that we do: our ethnography study every year, where we get the great chance to actually go out and rifle through kids' closets and go through their music collections. We hang out with them, and do some really great things that way.

What is an ethnography study?

An ethnography study, by definition, is a study that basically goes out and tries to understand the differences between audiences--to try to uncover nuances that make them separate from other ones. We've had . . . a great benefit . . . such a great appetite for understanding this audience in unique ways that we get to go out and rifle through their closets. We go through their music collections. We go to nightclubs with them.

We shut the door in their bedrooms and talk to them about issues that they feel are really important to them. We talk with them about what it's like to date today; what it's like dealing with their parents; what things stress them out the most; what things are really on the hearts and minds of them and their peers. We have them show us their favorite clothing outfits, what they wear to parties, some things from their photo albums and things that which really mean something to them. And then we're allowed to come back and translate that into programming opportunities or just insights in general about what the audience actually does.

What happens to the information you gather?

First, it's captured on video. So we have a camera crew, a sound and light crew there. And, by the way, young people today are not the least bit afraid or ashamed to be in front of a camera. You put a camera in front of them and they're ready to be a star, just fascinated to be a celebrity. In fact, they don't actually know we're from MTV. We go out of our way to make sure that they know that we do marketing research, and then never really let them know that it's MTV.

So we get the benefit of understanding the good and the things that they may not necessarily like about MTV. So we come back and then cut that videotape together, put it to music, and edit it in an MTV style. Our senior executives here at the company, and everyone within the company that we show it to, are used to watching that type of content . . . in typical research tapes. Seeing focus group tapes in a stale focus group room is not really interesting, so we like to kind of make it more dynamic. We then take that around and show it to various department meetings, share with them the insights that we've learned.

A year ago, we actually brought some of the kids out to an off-site we had out on Long Island, in Montauk. We had them actually bring their bedrooms to life for people, and let the executives actually walk throughout the whole experience, and get to talk with them and touch them and see what they're really like. I think that oftentimes what happens is, as we get older, we tend to forget what it's like to be a teenager. We'll forget the nuances and we'll apply old thinking to those types of things.

You have to keep reminding these executives?

We understand the kinds of products that they're using.    We're able to translate that on air in terms of set design, in terms of subjects that people talk about Well, everyone within the company. I think that even though we have a lot of people who are around 25 years old, additionally, it's that connection. Things change, and the good news for us is that we get to stay in touch with them all the time, 24-7.

It actually started about two months or so before the Montauk experience, as I call it. Our head of programming, Brian Graden, and I were talking about we want to really set the tone for the off-site, using research.

So we pulled some of the young people that we had actually used from ethnographies before and had them actually host the event, host the opening session. I had a young lady that we creatively renamed "Susie WatchALot." And she actually opened the session by showing a videotape of man-on-the-street interviews that we had done around the country, where we had asked people, "Tell us about what your life--what it's like to be young today. Tell us what challenges that you have. Tell us about what MTV is like today, and what you'd like MTV to be." The tape ended. She recapped what that was about. It was certainly a little awkward. But the beauty of it was that she was real and she was authentic. It wasn't me and it wasn't one of my staff getting up and talking--that they're so used to hearing. So immediately it shook the group up to realize, "Wow, I'm really getting something unique here."

Give us the physical description of these bedrooms at Montauk.

She then turned and we unveiled what we had done. We'd created four bedrooms and had divided them into day parts and had TVs inserted, showing rolling tape of the kinds of shows that our viewers watch. We had created these eight-foot by eight-foot boards. We had put everything on the boards, from the kinds of products that they're eating in the morning to the kinds of things that they do recreationally, all aspects, the kinds of clothes they're wearing.

And we also had peppered throughout it some of the actual respondents, some of the viewers. So there were six of them there. They all had speaking parts as well. Again, awkward. We had flown them in from around the country, but absolutely the beauty of it was we were able to allow them to kind of bring to life what their life was like.

At that point, we put a pause on it and said, "You guys get up and come and visit with us." So we forced 40 senior executives who previously had not--maybe had not ever--seen what a viewer looked like. They hadn't smelled them, touched them, seen what their hair was like or anything--got them up out of their seats and got them back with them. So for 20 minutes we let them interact with them and ask questions and talk with them about the kind of burning questions they always might have.

Now, while that person may not have represented the entire audience, it certainly gave the development and programming people the opportunity to ask those questions of the person one-on-one. They came back and sat down and we closed out with two of them talking about MTV today and then MTV tomorrow. So it was book-ended with things about MTV, but the centerpiece of it to bring to life what your life is all about.

And when it was over, Brian said to me, "Todd, that 30 minutes that we just spent was more impactful than three hours of a PowerPoint presentation that normally would come." So that alone was certainly a testament to the kind of work that we do. . . .

What is the theory behind knowing what the kid wears, eats-- what does that have to do with MTV programming?

Basically, it's principally to make our programming relevant. That, we believe, is the first turnstile that we must adhere to at all times--that anything that we do has to be relevant to the viewer. So many times we hear so many young people complain, and many adults as well, that they watch TV or they interact with any medium and they think, "What does this have to do with me?" We believe that . . . we're able to bring that to life on air, be it through the real world or things like that. We understand the kinds of products that they're actually using. We're able to actually translate that on air in terms of set design, in terms of subjects that people talk about, the issues they're grappling with as well. That's the way that works for us.

Is it retraining older minds to think like younger ones?

No question about it. Our mission from our research group, again, in terms of connecting with our audience is to stay the course of understanding what young people are about, and to kind of get in the mindset of what young people are about. The more often that we do that, the frequency of that starts to keep us in that mode. So when they leave the building, they look at other things very differently. When they watch television, when they interact with things online, they're actually thinking the way that one of our viewers would be thinking.

And our charge and our excitement comes, certainly, whenever we're able to get the senior executives and other programming folk within the company to think exactly the way that a teenager would think: how they process information; the way that they choose the kinds of clothes they wear; the music they listen to; and the issues that they're grappling with. That's what's most important for us.

Why?

Why? Because we believe that it gets us in the hearts and minds of the viewers. It makes it much more relevant. Of course, the currency that we're exchanging today is ratings, and it gets higher ratings and makes us continue to be the number one rated network for 12- to 34-year-olds, and certainly for teenagers.

You had five cools kids in a focus group on SoHo. What's the theory behind having such cool kids tell you about their lives?

. . . "Sources of Gold" was the name of the study that we're talking about. Probably about eight years ago or so . . . most trends came from places like New York and L.A. Most of the people who worked for MTV were from New York and L.A. Many of them were very young trendsetter types, leading-edge kind of young people.

We've seen the competitive landscape get more crowded. We've also seen trends start to come from places within the US, from places like Austin, Seattle, San Diego and Nashville. And it became apparent to us that we needed to better understand that cut of the marketplace, because MTV had always been a trailblazer, a trendsetter type of brand. In order to kind of hold onto that, it was important for us to stay in touch with that, and make sure that we were cognizant of those type of things.

Fast-forward about five years. Now we're seeing that trends come from even more obscure places than even those cities that I've just mentioned. So within that, we actually embarked on some trendsetter types of studies, more leading-edge youth studies. This study was the first one we had attacked globally, because MTV is a global brand in over 350 million households. And being the number one global media brand, it was important for us to hold onto that and make sure that we were relevant. So we embarked on a study called "Sources of Gold," to basically understand the sources that young people today identify with the most, whether it be people, places, things, attitudes, that we would understand. So we went to 18 cities around the world and talked to young people, leading-edge thinkers and tastemakers and stylemakers that we identified, to find out what they thought about what their lives were like. Then, eventually, we would talk to them about MTV, but it was more about cultural exchange of information.

And this thing in SoHo was one of those?

Yes, one of the 18, absolutely. And within each city we did four groups.

Why do you care what five guys tell you is their favorite song, et cetera?

. . . With the internet being more pervasive in people's homes and with mass media coming out to more and more people, it's more difficult to be a trendsetter today. It's more challenging. That's what we're starting to learn. It's more difficult to break from the norm, from the crowd, because so many other people can be trendsetters. So it's important for us to understand what that kind of leading edge, sometimes we call it "bleeding edge" youth group is actually thinking about. We can then take that and inspire programming people, development people, marketing people to create messages and content which actually would be interesting and provocative, which wouldn't be the thing that everyone else is our researching for and looking for those secrets.

So if you can mimic the leading trend, you believe you can reach the mainstream?

Somewhat. . . . We don't take every single trend and take it to heart and put it on air. For example, a couple of years ago people were into doing embedded piercings under their skin. We're not going show that on air. There's no reason, because the mainstream's not going to embrace that. But a trend such as spirituality, or personal responsibility, or their community--things that will help to inspire the bigger thoughts and the bigger ideas, which is what we get at. And we may first uncover that it's about piercings, but then understand later that it's more about a notion of doing something that's a ritual for themselves. We start to understand those things, and then bring that back into the programming fold.

Why did you have a guy making a graph of the lifespan of a trend?

As we get older, it's more and more challenging to stay in touch with what that group is about. We are convinced that we need to understand what their perspective is on trends. Today we definitely see the span of time shortened between when a trend is a fad, when it becomes a trend, and then when it becomes mainstream. It's compressed in a really big way. So it was really important for us to have their point of view about it, and understand how they actually process it. A big thing is to ask, "Why is it that you feel this way? Why do you think that these trends have been this way?" So that's a lot of the reason for asking.

MTV is certainly dedicated to connecting with its audience to make sure that it's providing content which is relevant. And the more that we can understand those nuances, the better programming and online content.

How is this different from the memory play model?

Fair statement. We believe that MTV is, and always has been, the platform, the place, the destination, where young people come, where teenagers come to express themselves and to see themselves reflected on air. When it comes to integrating our research into programming decisions, the people who actually are creating the programming are not manikins. They're not robots. They're actually pretty smart themselves, or they wouldn't be here. There's no question that they take the insights that we give them, and filter them. . . . Some things are certainly directly relevant. But mostly what we bring to them is an added value of insight that they may not actually have otherwise.

Do you agree that this is the most "marketed-to" generation ever?

I certainly believe that as a youth generation, as a teenaged generation, that they are the most marketed-to. You could probably rewind about 10 or 12 years and see that baby boomers were actually the biggest generation which was marketed-to. So as a teenaged generation, no question about it. If anything, it makes them more marketing-savvy. It's all the things that we would expect. They're more media-savvy. They understand the way brands are built. They understand the arc that a brand goes in terms of its lifespan, of huge popularity to dying out or regenerating itself into something else.

And with that comes a good deal of skepticism about messages, a need to prove oneself before they can actually win the hearts and minds of them. There's also . . . a significant lack of loyalty. So that's the challenge for many brands today which are facing teenagers.

How do you overcome their skepticism?

Relevance, quite honestly, in terms of overcoming skepticism is about being relevant and being consistent. . . . If you look across virtually every category, every brand which is number one in its category has been consistent and delivers a consistent product and message at all times. Any time that it starts to stray away from that, the competition is watching. They're looking for that break, and any time that they can actually try to move their way in there, they're going to. And consumers today are absolutely aware of that. They will turn their back on a brand as quickly as they'll cling to one.

How important is authenticity is knowing them--in overcoming their skepticism?

There's no question that today the notion of authenticity and reality and originality and those types of things are highly valued. They are the currency to which we filter everything through. They're the things that we exchange. So as brands start to build themselves and start to grow beyond a niche audience that it might originally embrace, it's important to make sure that they stay true to their roots and stay true to the audience; to make sure that they're tapping into the relevant issues that the audience has.

So knowing the kids helps you win their trust?

Yes. . . .The more often that we are in touch with them and in contact with them; then translating what they've told us and what kinds of issues they're dealing with; the more often that we hit a home run--the more often that we actually succeed in terms of developing a relationship and a bond with them, a great brand relationship. So the next time that we come out with a program, the next time we come out with a message, anything that we are building in terms of our brand, they're more open to it, because there's an understanding: "This is my brand." They, in fact, talk about MTV as being "their brand" and seeing it as something that is an extension of themselves.

What shows do really well on MTV?

"Total Request Live"--there's no question. It's certainly got a high point of connection with our viewers, because of their kind of obsession with celebrity and obsession with just seeing themselves, the fascination with seeing real people just like themselves.

"The Real World" and "Road Rules," both of which we are well aware of, certainly have spun off many other shows mirroring that kind of model. It's reality, and it showcases people dealing with real issues. In some of our "True Life" episodes, we actually are able to showcase people dealing with challenging issues from things about what it's like to be the football hero in your high school, to even what's it's like to be addicted to crystal meth. So we span all those types of things. Those types of things are the kinds of shows which, we believe, connect with them and showcase what their lives are like, in that they really enjoy us.

What does "mirroring" mean?

I would say that our philosophy is both leading and reflecting. There are many times where it's important for us that, in terms of keeping our edge and making sure that we're seen as leading-edge brand, that we oftentimes will lead with certain things that maybe much of the mainstream hasn't embraced yet. But we know for a fact, through our research and through the smart people who actually work on the brand, that we're going take the risk and we're there.

There are many times also that we're reflective. So the use of the word "mirroring" is maybe not necessarily . . . If we put a phrase on it, "feedback loop" would work. I think that it is not as conventional as a conventional loop might be. There are times when we get feedback, and we're actually not ready to bring it back internally. We need to go back and prove some hypotheses, or we need to go and test some other things, or just better understand what they're about and then bring it internally and share with them.

What are we doing today?

Today I'm going to actually get to share with you the exciting project and the methodology behind our ethnography study where we actually are going to visit a young man in New Jersey. We're going to go to his house and take a peek into his life. We'll understand what kind of music he's into, what clothing he wears, what kinds of things he's doing in his leisure time, how MTV fits into all those kinds of things--it's a really exciting thing.

Why this kid?

Basically, he was chosen. We randomly recruit people from around the country to be able to just barge into their lives and try to understand what they're about. As I said earlier, they're not afraid to be on camera, so it's a great thing. We have the luxury of that.

What's this fascination about being on TV on the part of today's kids?

Well, if you think about it, this generation in particular has grown up with 72 channels. They are a TV media-rich society in their own right. So there's no question that, for their whole lives, they've seen nothing but customized content made for them. They've grown up with networks that are 24 hours a day made for them. By the time they get to be a teenager, there's a brand that truly celebrates what they're about and celebrates their lives and their older siblings as well. So they're able to grow into it even into their 20s.

Whether it's the voyeuristic notion that's happening today and some of the influence of what's happened through the early 1990s, with the talk shows and the rise of therapy and all those kinds of things, that kind of mindset--we believe that young people today are absolutely hugely attracted to that type of phenomenon, to the camera.

MTV seems to consciously want to bring kids into the process. Has this encouraged this appetite to be part of it--to be in box, as it were?

I think that whether we encourage them, I think that we're just reflecting what their appetite is for. I mean, they're interested in it. They want more of it, and it's proven out oftentimes in ratings. It's seen across all of television with those types of shows. Look at "The Simpsons," even. That is a show that's animated. That isn't even real people, but it constantly gets applauded for showing real life as it really is. So if you look at all different kinds of genres, all different kinds of networks, that type of programming is the type of thing that much of society is in favor of today.

Do you have any examples where a specific piece of research you've uncovered ended up making a show? . . .

There are numerous examples of how research is effective for us. One example is the creation of "Total Request Live." There's no question that research played an integral and driving part in creating that show, in helping to showcase viewers, understanding the role of countdowns, understanding the role of a host who was approachable, who was accessible, who was someone who they believed in.

In the early days, "Total Request Live" started as a show called "MTV Live." And before we actually were able to locate the great Carson Daly, we had a variety of different hosts coming through the show and we did a variety of different things. We talked about the billboard charts. We talked about upcoming movies. We talked about a variety of different things. We tested those types of things. We were in on all the meetings which helped to build that show.

We finally found Carson. . . . He brought great qualities . . . to it. We continued to tweak the show, and we found the value of actually showing videos and what role that plays in young people's lives when they come in after school. It was a home run, no question about it, and the research has been a hit ever since with that.

Brian and Jeff mentioned to us there was a moment that redefined MTV. Tell about that.

About three-or-so years ago, the competitive field had gotten much more crowded. So it became apparent that MTV needed to take stock of what the brand was about. Through our research efforts, since we're charged with being keepers of the brand . . . with us being so close to the very people that we get up and come to work for every day--the viewer--it was important and imperative that I bring back the insights of what viewers thought about our brand at that point in time.

When we learned that we had fallen off creatively, our risk-taking scores had gone down, and issues about playing music . . . we were sliding and challenged. We came back and had a good deal of meetings, where we actually had heart-to-heart conversations about, "What are we doing with this brand, and how are we going to continue to grow it?" We collectively decided then to embark on a strategy, as I talked about at the beginning, which actually has moved us to the heights that we are today. That was the defining moment that we had and at the centerpiece of that was research.

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