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MTV's Real World

Five years ago, MTV’s ratings were flatlining as music videos started to look like a relic of the eighties. Now it’s the envy of every other network, spawning The Osbournes, Jackass, and a score of other offbeat—and wildly popular—offerings. How’d it happen? Call it chaos theory, managed (barely) by two of television’s unlikeliest executives. Man, this could be chaos.

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Teen Spirit: Teenage girls --part of MTV's key demographic -- give a cheer on the set of Total Request Live (a.k.a. TRL).  

It’s one of those sweltering afternoons in Los Angeles when the dead air seems to suffocate the dingy, Chandleresque lowlands off the Harbor Freeway near USC. Nevertheless, two top executives of the most envied network in the country look cooler than the suits of any television network have any business looking. They’ve just dropped in to see the final sound-check the day before the MTV Movie Awards, and here they are, slouching like overgrown teenagers in two of the 6,300 empty seats inside the cavernous Shrine Auditorium.

Kelly Osbourne, Ozzy’s youngest daughter, strolls into the theater, looking like a Hollywood Boulevard street urchin with her fuchsia hair and baggy black hooded sweatshirt, but trailing a posse that would make Madonna take notice. In fact, in a fit of Madonna-like imperiousness, Kelly has demanded to have the hall cleared so she can run through “Papa Don’t Preach,” which she will sing to climax the awards show tomorrow. There’s only one snag.

“Kelly’s never done this before,” says Brian Graden, MTV’s head of programming. “She’s never even sung in public. Can you imagine making your debut on national television?”

Network suits are paid to panic over stuff like this. But the guy who gets paid to program MTV is looking amused. At 39, Graden is dressed the part of a fifties juvenile delinquent, in a plain white undershirt and dark Levi’s jeans. His boss, MTV president Van Toffler, is leaning against a soundboard a few feet away, wearing a surfer-ish gray sweatshirt. They look like two kids who just pulled the school fire alarm and now are looking forward to watching the commotion.

Then again, why not? At worst, Kelly’s going to make a fool of herself. But so long as Kelly makes a fool of herself in a compelling way, well, it’ll be great TV. “People always want to watch the train wreck on television,” Toffler says. Which applies to the whole Osbournes phenomenon in the first place. The Osbournes was never supposed to be anything more than a single episode of Cribs, MTV’s at-home-with-the-stars series. “I assure you, no one from the networks was calling up Ozzy Osbourne and asking, ‘Can you do a show for us?’ ” Toffler says with a cool smile. “I mean, you can’t even understand what the guy is saying. We debated subtitles.” Ozzy and Sharon got their own show only because the guys at the top got a chuckle out of it, and if it sank like a stone, who cares? They’d just play another two hunches tomorrow.

The Osbournes did not sink like a stone. Instead, it quickly became a stealth hit and a fitting cap to a remarkable, and completely unforeseen, turnaround that MTV has pulled off over the past five years—which also happens to coincide snugly with Toffler and Graden’s ascent at the network.

The rebound is all the more unlikely when you consider that television in general is stumbling, pop music is in a trough, and MTV’s very identity—a pure music-video channel—seemed obsolete almost a decade ago. It’s little wonder, then, that everyone’s trying to figure out MTV’s winning formula. “I would say it’s the opposite of having a formula,” Toffler says. “We’ve got an audience that is much more adventurous than the rest of the population. They’re not afraid to fail, so they will let us fail. Anyone can walk in the door with an idea, and we’ll sort of say, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s no full frontal nudity, okay?,’ then you do the rest.”

If the TV business is by nature chaos, why not embrace it? Chaos is vitality. Chaos is opportunity. Chaos is youth.

“But the point that most people miss is how not-by-chance The Osbournes occurs, how not-by-chance you have one hit after another,” explains Graden. “What they don’t understand is how disciplined we are about creating chaos.”

Of course, there’s good chaos and there’s bad chaos, and not long before the new regime took over at MTV, there was more of the latter than the former.

“Culturally, I think it was a general crisis of confidence,” says Graden of the period around 1997, when MTV hired him. Graden has just flown in from MTV’s programming offices in Los Angeles. He settles into a chair in an office in the New York headquarters. The elegant clock of the Times building next door glows gigantic in the vast south window.

“When you’ve had a period of failure, an organization becomes defensive, you don’t want to try anything,” he explains. “And that runs counter to the development mantra here, which is pretty much ‘Try everything. Try too much.’ ”

By the mid-nineties, the network was already well into a massive and risky effort to reimagine itself from the ground up. The old MTV—essentially, a radio station with visuals—had lost its hold on the eye-blink teenage attention span, which MTV had already helped shorten, and ratings were sinking. The rock video was starting to look like a Reagan-era fad, like Wayfarer sunglasses. “The novelty just wore off,” explains Toffler. “On the radio, you can listen to the same song over and over. But when it’s attached to visuals, it burns much faster.”

“I loved the early nineties on MTV—Public Enemy, Nirvana, Rock the Vote. It was like heaven. We had influential content, influential music, things were changing, but we had low, low ratings,” says Judy McGrath, MTV’s president at the time and a veteran of the network’s entire 21-year history (she now oversees MTV, VH1, and other music-related properties under MTV Networks chief Tom Freston). “Back then, our steady diet was a lot of leading-edge stuff, and not a ton of people were watching.”


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