This story has been updated. See below for details.
Can you really take everything that's going on with movies, TV shows, music, Internet memes, and social media, and wrangle it all into an hour of live television? MTV believes it can--with some help from Twitter, Facebook, and a quirky British model-turned-TV-host named Alexa Chung.
The pop-culture cable network's new daily talk show, titled "It's On with Alexa Chung," premieres at noon on June 15 and expectations are high. The show is taking over the time slot once held by "Total Request Live," or "TRL," the music video countdown show that more or less defined MTV--and in turn, mainstream youth culture--in the late '90s and early '00s. Chung, 25, is a British import who's already solidified a reputation as a quirky TV host across the pond, but is largely unknown in the U.S.
But it's the dual partnerships that MTV has inked with Facebook and Twitter that are really generating buzz. There will be on-screen "tweets," content sourced from Facebook profiles and fan pages, audience contribution from polls to remixed YouTube videos, and round-the-clock updates from Chung's own Twitter account. If it's all done right, "Alexa Chung" could be both a milestone in the convergence between TV and the Web, and a fresh infusion of innovation for a TV network that many say was shooting itself in the foot for not catching onto the social media craze earlier.
"The hope is that (social media) will just be something that is like the air that the show breathes on," said Dave Sirulnick, executive vice president of news and broadcast at MTV. "I think our audience, they'll expect this from us. They're going to expect us to talk to them the way they talk to each other. It's the way they experience the world, you know--it would be odd for us to mount this project, put this up on the air, and not have that happen, you know, because our audience, I don't think they look at it as something that is all new. This is just what they've grown up with."
A decade ago, if you wanted to get a message on MTV, your best bet was probably to write it on a poster and join the cheering crowds outside the network's New York studio during a "TRL" taping, hoping to make your way into the scope of the cameras sweeping overhead. Or if you were really lucky, you could call in and have your telephoned questions asked to celebrity guests on-air.
"In the old days our connection to the outside world on 'TRL' was one person on a phone," said executive producer Tim Healy. "Now with this new show it's definitely increased the scope."
MTV canceled "TRL" earlier this year--some would say belatedly. The network's reputation as a hub of pop-culture influence had long since started to fade: New music was being discovered on MySpace pages and niche music blogs. Popular clips from last night's TV shows were swapped via YouTube and Hulu links in instant messages and posts on Facebook profiles. Youth culture had grown segmented and fragmented with the mass availability of niche "long-tail" content on the Web, and social media had thrown out everyone's old notions of shelf lives--a 10-year-old music video can become an overnight hit on YouTube if enough people start telling their friends about it, whereas fresh Internet fads can be eclipsed and forgotten faster than ever. It seemed that when it came to encapsulating the cool-kid zeitgeist, a live TV show just couldn't cut it in the digital age.
With "Alexa Chung," MTV is making a totally different show. The iconic "TRL" set has been converted into something that looks like a loft apartment, with the studio audience scattered around like party guests. There will be no countdown--rather, a talk show format inspired in part by late-night programming, with topics ranging from movies and music to the latest YouTube sensations (whom Chung plans to regularly bring onto the set to see if their singing, dancing, or other oddball talents are for real). And there will be no screaming crowds in Times Square. Instead, there will be tweets.
The tweet smell of success?
"I think the genius of Twitter is that it's in the second. Not even the moment, it's right now," Sirulnick said. "Instant feedback from the audience, from what's going on, will be on-screen. Whether it's a persistent on-screen feed is something we're toying with right now. We haven't entirely decided."
This won't be MTV's first experiment with Twitter. Nearly two years ago, the network started a Twitter account for the "moon man," the mascot for its annual Video Music Awards, as a promotion for the ceremony. It went largely unnoticed: In the summer of 2007, Twitter was hardly a household term.
But after unofficial celebrity endorsements and an appearance on Oprah hurtled Twitter into the mainstream earlier this year, the situation is very different. A firestorm of gossip ensued last week when a report in Variety implied that the company was developing a reality TV series. The rumors got so out of hand that co-founder Biz Stone posted a clarification on the company's official blog: "We're not making a TV show," he wrote.
"That was very frustrating and unfortunate, and a misrepresentation of all sorts of things," Chloe Sladden, Twitter's director of business development for global broadcast and news media, told CNET News several days later.
As it turns out, the Variety report detailed one of a number of partnerships that Twitter is working on with media and entertainment companies. That's Sladden's specialty: she was hired by Twitter this spring, after she spent several years working at Current, the edgy cable news channel co-founded by former vice president Al Gore. While at Current, Sladden worked with Twitter to help supplement its 2008 election coverage with on-screen tweets. Now at Twitter full-time, she's helping media outlets--including, but not limited to MTV--integrate tweets, Twitter searches, trending topics, and the like into their broadcasts.
There's no financial transaction involved in the "Alexa Chung" deal, Sladden said, and that's the way Twitter intends it to be.
"We're trying to unlock the true potential of Twitter, and a lot of our strategy has been to let other folks build a lot of cool stuff on top of Twitter. So the model here is much like the application developers," she explained. When it comes to Twitter's media partnerships, "think of this as a creative API."
MTV's partnership with Facebook is a little more formal, and a little more out-of-the-ordinary for both the social network and MTV. "Whenever they have a celebrity guest, they're exclusively featuring Facebook's presence for that celebrity," said Randi Zuckerberg, who heads up marketing at Facebook (and, yes, is founder Mark Zuckerberg's sister). "Which is really cool. The majority of celebrities have Facebook fan pages right now, with thousands or millions of fans." There will also, of course, be a "fan page" for the show itself, where viewers can submit questions to celebrity guests, vote on which songs they want bands to play when they appear live, and provide general feedback.
But in addition to celebrity fan pages, viewers' own Facebook profile content might pop up on the show. "People in the studio audience will have the opportunity to temporarily 'friend' some of the producers," Zuckerberg said. "Basically, they'll 'friend' them for about two hours, the duration of the show, and then they're going to encourage people to do mobile uploads during the show, mobile status updates, mobile photos, et cetera." For those who aren't in the studio audience, questions for the celebrity guests can be accompanied by Facebook photos or other content.
It's still a touchy issue, considering that a lot of Facebook profile content still isn't public, and many people wouldn't want their party photos splashed all over MTV without very explicit permission. And it's a sharp turn from Facebook's erstwhile hardline attitude of keeping everything behind a login wall, which is why representatives from both companies say that the use of Facebook content on TV will be given the kid-glove treatment.
"Everything's going to be signed off on by the people who are asking the questions," Sirulnick said, adding that MTV has been working with Facebook to finalize and streamline consent procedures. "We're not going to be exposing anybody who has not explicitly agreed to have their material on television. It's important to us, it's important to the audience, it's fair. It's important to Facebook."
MTV + Facebook = ad potential
Unlike the Twitter partnership, this isn't a money-free deal. MTV and Facebook have assembled a joint advertising sales team to sell sponsorship packages that encompass both TV spots and social-media ads.
"A sponsor can have placement on the show, commercials or in-show integration, and also integration on Facebook," explained Randi Zuckerberg, who previously helped orchestrate a partnership with broadcast network ABC during the presidential debates last year. "So, they can do an event RSVP ad for their participation in episodes they're in. They can be integrated into the Facebook page for Alexa's show. There's a lot of great things that they can target to fans of a certain celebrity. We're really going out together and really involving sponsors on both Facebook and TV."
This is big news for the nascent social-network advertising market. Plenty of companies aren't yet comfortable putting ads on the likes of Facebook, having heard the rampant belief that returns aren't good.
MTV's Sirulnick said he sees the joint ad sales strategy as a way for longstanding MTV advertisers to take the plunge into social media, for example, "if Sponsor X is a sponsor of MTV, and has been looking to get into the social-networking space, and has been looking for a window in." But he said that MTV will keep the profits from ads on its own properties, and Facebook will do the same for its site. "The MTV and the Facebook sales teams are out there jointly putting together packages for sales, but it's not a revenue share."
Not everyone in digital media is sure that this hybrid of broadcast television and user-generated social-network content will work.
"As a device every now and then it's OK. When it's persistent, it's annoying," said Jim Louderback, CEO of Web video production company Revision3, when asked about the idea of bringing Twitter and Facebook to broadcast television. "Mixing two mediums together like that doesn't work. You lose what makes each medium work really well, and that's why television on the Web is different from Web TV. That's why WebTV from Microsoft didn't work."
That said, MTV executives say that they're shaping and tweaking "It's On with Alexa Chung" up to the moment it airs, and will continue doing so even after the June 15 debut. The network is clearly excited at this chance to reinvent its brand--and to keep reinventing it, ideally preventing it from growing stale the way "TRL" did.
"It's going to be something that every day we're trying to come up with new things (for)," Sirulnick said. "The folks at Facebook are very excited about this, the folks at Twitter are very excited about this, and the good news is that they get us, they get the audience, they know what works really well on their site. And so it's much more, We're just talking all the time."
Alexa Chung herself appears to be equally excited.
"First guests confirmed for my new show. SO GREAT," she posted to her Twitter account on Wednesday. "America can you watch me please?? Cos my mum doesn't live here."
Updated at 5:53 a.m. PDT: MTV has now settled on an official name for the show: "It's On with Alexa Chung."