Cable networks are slowly dying. This is no surprise, as people are turning to dozens of streaming options to watch television on demand instead of on a cable network’s schedule.
Look at Paramount Global’s cable networks, most of which are just repositories of reruns and bad movies. Logo, where RuPaul’s Drag Race got its start, has been abandoned; CMT cancelled its only remaining unscripted show last year.
What’s been baffling to many of us is how MTV—which has shows people actually watch, notably The Challenge—spends most of its days airing the show Ridiculousness.
It’s a perfectly titled show for such ridiculous behavior. The Twitter account @MTVSchedules used to document this with a weekly graphic of MTV’s schedule: just scroll through its timeline and look for the orange.
That’s every episode of MTV had Ridiculousness scheduled, and that continues to this day.
When I wrote about this three years ago, MTV was airing several days worth of Ridiculousness, and just one broadcast of The Challenge. Sometimes there’s a handful of Catfish reruns thrown in, but Ridiculousness rules the schedule.
As someone who literally discovered The Real World thanks to a weekend marathon, that seems like a missed opportunity.
So why does MTV do this? Why is MTV just hours and hours of clips hosted by Rob Dyrdek? At long last, we have some clarity.
Ridiculousness: ‘perfectly, scientifically designed’
In a wide-ranging and in-depth conversation, Vulture’s Joe Adalian talked to Chris McCarthy, who’s now the president and CEO or Paramount and Showtime Media Networks, plus MTV Entertainment Studios.
His bio also says he is “Chief Content Officer, Paramount+, in charge of unscripted entertainment and adult animation,” and is “overseeing MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, Pop, CMT, Paramount Network, Smithsonian Channel, Logo, TV Land,” and MTV Documentary Films.
That’s a lot of oversight! But he knows the cable networks well: after overseeing Logo, Chris McCarthy started running VH1 in 2015, and became president of those two networks and MTV in 2016.
In his interview with Adalian, McCarthy says that, at Paramount, “we learned how to make something that could appeal to everybody, and all at once. That’s a benefit of understanding mass culture. So, while we’re new to streaming, we’re not new to hit-making. When you think about The Challenge or Drag Race or the Shores or South Park or Yellowstone, those are big hits that are designed to appeal to the center of the country and the coast. That’s very different than a lot of other people have been doing in streaming.”
He compared plans to expand Yellowstone into a franchise to The Challenge:
And frankly, it’s no different than what we’ve done for years on the unscripted space with Drag Race and Challenge. We just premiered a brand-new Challenge in Argentina and had 60 percent share in its premiere night, six-zero.
So why not play up The Challenge and its spin-offs more? Why not rerun them all weekend? Why not air the newest episodes more than once?
Elsewhere in the interview, Chris McCarthy said that, at MTV, “The world has changed a lot since we launched in 1981. And as much as we still wanted people to watch us on the channel, that world has long left us.” He says later that the channels that still run music videos are “our least-watched channels.”
McCarthy also said this:
I think there’s a misconception that we all wish it wasn’t still the good old days in cable. Of course we do! It would’ve made all of our jobs a lot easier. But we’re at a fork in the road. We can choose to wish things were the way they were before, or we can lean into the future and drive the change. I’m not going to dwell in the past. I want to drive and create the future.
Joe Adalian asks, specifically, about Ridiculousness reruns and MTV’s schedule, saying, “We live in an on-demand world where people can use streaming to binge, so what’s the point of doing that on linear?”, and McCarthy explained:
I think you just answered it with the question: “In an on-demand world, why do you run with Ridiculousness?” The same people that ask you those questions, I’d ask them when was the last time they turned on the television and just leaned back and watched for hours on end? If they did, they were going to one of their favorite channels that delivered them one type of show—one of the home shows they create on HGTV or the Housewives on Bravo. The people who are leaning back on and watching linear television, that audience is older. They’re on linear because they don’t want it to change. And what they love more than anything on MTV is Ridiculousness.
Basically, MTV’s cable audience is old, and they love watching this show:
Ridiculousness is one of these genius shows that is perfectly, scientifically designed to get older, younger, right, left — it brings them to their instant happy place. And I think what people get confused about is they think we’re still doing 20 episodes a year, when generally, we tend to premiere 8-12 new Ridiculousness episodes per week. And that show just absolutely delivers for the audience that is left watching daytime television. That audience is a lot smaller.
If you were to look at MTV’s biggest shows, what you would see is it’s things like The Challenge. It’s Drag Race and it’s Jersey Shore. The viewer watches on demand or with their DVR. They never come to the channel anymore. They’re about 10 years younger. And they love those shows. But if you’re leaning back, watching just straight live TV, most people who are watching non-primetime linear TV are there to watch one or two shows, whether it’s Ridiculousness or, on other networks, Friends or The Office or House Hunters International.
That people don’t watch Drag Race or The Challenge live is fascinating. I’m sure for some of us, we’re the exceptions. In my house, Drag Race is live viewing Friday nights, as it’s my husband’s favorite show.
But I assume Paramount’s ratings data makes it clear that the vast majority of their viewers are watching later, and not actually tuning in to MTV.
Chris McCarthy told Joe Adalian that, indeed, he understands why people like me get annoyed and/or saddened watching MTV crumbling before our very eyes—my words, not his.
Here’s what McCarthy said:
I think because MTV was there at the beginning of cable, people put a lens on it. It holds such a special place for them and they think that the changes in viewing habits that are happening on linear must be different [for] MTV.