LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - MTV, which made its name as the home of the music video three decades ago, will launch a drive into scripted original programs on Friday that executives hope will mark a new era for the youth-oriented cable channel.
At a time when many TV studios are reducing expensive scripted dramas and comedies, MTV is expanding its horizons beyond its current reality-heavy slate and making original movies and series on a tight budget.
"A big part of our mission as we go forward is to add scripted programing, animation, comedy and long-form movies to the mix," said Tony DiSanto, president of programing at MTV, a unit of Viacom Inc.
"There was the music video era, the 'TRL' (Total Request Live) era, the 'Jackass' era and 'The Hills' era, I think we are now on the cusp of the next defining moment for MTV," DiSanto said.
Friday's premiere of "My Super Psycho Sweet 16", a horror movie inspired by the hit MTV reality series "My Super Sweet 16", is the first of four original movies due to air over the next 12 months. Other programs in the works include a comedy series and a U.S. remake of the British teen drama "Skins".
DiSanto said "My Super Psycho Sweet 16", shot in Atlanta, Georgia to maximize tax credits, "cost us less than two half-hour episodes of 'The Hills'". It went from script to finished production in six months. MTV declined to say how much it was investing in the productions.
The drive for scripted shows is part of MTV's bid to stay fresh in a fickle youth market with a short attention span.
It comes at a time of falling ratings for MTV, which transformed itself from a 24/7 music video channel in the 1980s to a reality innovator in the 1990s with "The Real World" and later "The Osbournes".
Prime-time MTV season averages for 2008-2009 dropped 17 percent from the 2007-08 season, to 951,000 viewers, according to ratings figures from The Nielsen Company.
The 6th season debut in September of one of MTV's most popular shows, "The Hills", which follows rich 20-somethings in Los Angeles, dropped to 2.1 million viewers compared to 3 million for its 5th season premiere in April 2009.
Despite the decline, "The Hills" remains the most-watched show in its time slot for ages 12-24, where MTV remains the No. 1 full-day, advertiser supported cable network.
DiSanto said MTV hoped to attract more viewers in other age ranges by stepping up original programing to about 16 percent of output in 2010, although youths remain the target audience.
He said the channel's expectations for "My Super Psycho Sweet 16" were geared more toward creative challenges than to viewership.
"There are not tremendous ratings expectations for this (Friday evening) slot, but there were questions around whether we could make a quality film with this new (financial) model, and I feel we have," he said.
"There is also longevity, We have an opportunity to create a repeatable library of assets," he said of the film venture.
MTV hopes to keep expenses down through strategic partnerships, filming in tax-friendly U.S. states and Canada, and applying the same cost efficiencies to movie making as it has to its reality shows, DiSanto said.
Other upcoming movies are also tied to existing MTV franchises, including the make-a-wish reality show "Made" and "America's Next Dance Crew", whose next series will be launched in early 2010 by the dance movie, "Turn the Beat Around."
A scripted half-hour comedy series "Hard Times", which chronicles the life of an unpopular teenager, is due to air next spring and MTV recently won the rights to the U.S. remake of the edgy BBC teen drama, "Skins".
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte