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How to Get Really Close to Teens' Lives: MTV's Ethnography Study

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Behind the Scenes:

A MTV Ethnography Study visit by Todd Cunningham and a colleague to the home of a typical MTV fan in New Jersey. [Note: the fan doesn't actually know they're from MTV; they identify themselves as market researchers.] Douglas Rushkoff, FRONTLINE correspondent for "The Merchants of Cool," went along on the visit with FRONTLINE's cameras and introduces this video excerpt.

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MTV has long emphasized market research to learn about its teen audience. But in the late 1990s it noticed its ratings were starting to slide. So MTV embarked on a new teen research campaign, the hallmark of which was its "ethnography study."

"We go out and we rifle through their closets," explains Todd Cunningham, senior vice president of strategy and planning for MTV. "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." At the end of these "ethnography study" visits--for which MTV brings a check for the teen and their video camera--Cunningham and his team translate the visit into a videoclip to show to MTV's executives.

Explore below two opposing views of this kind of teen research and its goals.

Mark Crispin Miller
media critic

The MTV machine does listen very carefully to children. ...When corporate revenues depend on being ahead of the curve, you have to listen, you have to know exactly what they want and exactly what they're thinking so that you can give them what you want them to have.

Now that's an important distinction. The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so that it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom [MTV's owner] has to sell to those kids....

It closely studies the young, keeps them under very tight surveillance, to figure out what will push their buttons. Then it takes that and blares it back at them relentlessly and everywhere.

David Sirulnick
MTV executive vice president for news & production

photo of dave sirulnick MTV felt like we needed to get a closer connection to the audience. We said, "If we know more about them, know more about their lives, know more about who they are, what they want, what they don't want, you can process that." You don't have to use it to the letter, you know, the feedback. You use a lot of it. Some of it you discard. You don't take a feedback and go, "Oh, well, they want a show that wants these three things. Make it tomorrow." That doesn't really work.

You have to take in what your experience says and, as a television producer, what you can do and build on the feedback you get. So that's where we sort of came from--we can make this stuff better. We can make a better MTV that has a better connection with the audience if we talk to them and listen to them a lot more. Using that as sort of our foundation, you build from there."

Todd Cunningham
MTV senior vice president of strategy and planning

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....

So this is all about getting inside the texture of their lives....

I was talking with our head of programming, Brian Graden, about what the research role would play at a big retreat that we were going to have. We were going to bring out about 40 to 50 senior executives to generate new ideas for programming. We do this once a year to just shake things up.

And we actually decided to bring some of the people that we had interviewed through ethnography and had been really compelling and brought them out to Montauk ... and we had them talk about what their lives were like, where their hopes and aspirations were.

After that was over, we unveiled four bedrooms that we had brought to life in gigantic eight-foot by eight-foot boards where we had actually divided each of the rooms up into day parts. So that one board, for example, started from six in the morning 'til 11 in the morning. So on that board, you actually were able to see what a what a teenager's life was like from six in the morning 'til 11 in the morning. Standing next to that board was a viewer, someone that we had actually talked with before in ethnography and spent a good deal of time with. And we had four other boards throughout there that divided up the entire day.

So it visually brought to life all the things that they would read and the things that you would hear about what a young person's life is and you saw the kind of recreational activities they were doing, the products they were eating, things they were drinking, the kinds of things they were doing in their lives. We then told the executives -- "Gotta get up now, because it's like you can't see it just from here. We want you to touch and feel and smell and get all of this experience fully."

So for 20 minutes they got to actually get up out of their seats, come back and interact with these young people. We had six other young people back there hosting that part. And they got to actually ask questions that they had always had, burning questions about things that they're actually doing in their leisure time and the like. After that, we closed it out with just a recap of the way that these guys saw MTV today and MTV tomorrow.

So it was book-ended with things about MTV, but the centerpiece of it was to bring to life what your life is all about.

Read Todd Cunningham's extended interview with FRONTLINE.

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