It used to be the last word in youth culture. Now MTV is more about reality shows than rock stars. Can a virtual world of 3-D avatars help the network get its groove back?
Wired magazine, February 2007 (approx. 2,400 words)
Lounging by a bright blue pool, Kyndra and Cami, stars of MTV’s hit reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, chat with a bunch of other teenagers. Kyndra’s white bikini shows off an artificially enhanced figure, while Cami’s dark skin glows against an unnaturally bright blue sky. This is Laguna Beach, after a fashion, but it isn’t the TV show. It’s a live appearance, a chance for the show’s bitchiest characters to hang with some of the 2 million viewers who tune in to their breakups and hookups every Wednesday night. As the pool fills up with fans, someone asks why the girls are always so mean to fellow cast member Tessa. Kyndra shrugs: “We just don’t like her personally.” Cami can’t be bothered to answer; she’s busy tongue wrestling with some hipster dude in sunglasses.
Kyndra and Cami are kind of fake — and not just in the catty teenage sense of the word. The two girls by the pool are computerized 3-D replicas of the cast members, who are using mouse and keyboard to navigate their avatars through a multiplayer online environment known as Virtual Laguna Beach. Anyone with a PC and a broadband connection can join them.
You want your MTV? These days, that means going virtual.
MTV planted its flag on the moon on August 1, 1981, and the channel quickly came to define what being young and hip was all about. The quick-cut style of the music video set the pace of the era and helped launch the careers of directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In addition to being the official soundtrack of youth culture, the network discovered up-and-coming talent like animator Mike Judge, pioneered reality television with The Real World, and, with its televised town halls, helped send Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992.
But as anyone will tell you, MTV has lost its groove. The network’s 2006 Video Music Awards were the lowest rated in 10 years. Its airtime is increasingly occupied by reality shows. You can find music on offshoot MTV2, but even so, TV commercials break more new bands these days. As an arbiter of cool, MTV has lost its clout.
MTV has always struggled to stay hip. “The novelty of music video wore off a year or two into our history,” says Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks’ music group. But over the last decade, the network has had an especially hard time keeping on top of the latest trends. Why? The Internet killed the video star. Since the advent of Napster, MP3 blogs, and YouTube, kids have learned about new music by going online. They watch, buy, stream, swap, and steal music online. They list their favorite tracks and debate which band is coolest online.
Now MTV execs are scrambling to catch up with the hot new hangout spots on the Web. The network’s parent company, Viacom, had a chance to buy MySpace, but competitor News Corp. snapped it up for $580 million in 2005. (A corporate reshuffle at Viacom followed.) MTV has been reduced to copycat initiatives. Last May, MTV beta-launched the subscription-based music-download service Urge to compete with Apple’s iTunes. It continues to beef up Overdrive, a broadband site offering free music videos and show outtakes that vainly tries to compete with YouTube. The shows also have discussion forums—but they aren’t holding on to as many eyeballs as the network would like. “Kids were watching Laguna Beach,” says Matt Bostwick, an MTV senior vice president, “but then they were going everyplace else on the Web to talk about what they’d just seen.”
These overhyped, underperforming MTV.com portals may, however, soon be overshadowed by a tiny unit within the network called Leapfrog. Its mission: Don’t try to compete directly with today’s top destinations. Instead, find the next big thing so MTV can, yes, leapfrog the competition once social networking sites start to seem so five minutes ago.
Bostwick, 48, is a leader of the Leapfrog initiative. The veteran marketing exec commutes from suburban Connecticut to his Dilbert-drab office in midtown Manhattan, but he’s also a gamer who dresses like Johnny Cash: ankle-high black motorcycle boots, black jeans, and black shirt with black stripes. He’s betting that 3-D environments like Virtual Laguna Beach are the next logical step beyond what he calls the classical model of 2-D social networking sites.
And he’s probably right. What YouTube and MySpace offer—the ability to actively participate, build a social network, and express yourself by adding your own content—is now a minimum requirement for any Web-based property that wants to capture youth. And virtual worlds like Second Life push this sort of online socializing a step further. There, your interactions unfold in real time and take the form of a 3-D avatar that is more expressive than any flat Web site could ever be.
With its headlong leap into virtual worlds, MTV hopes to forge MySpace 2.0—and find its way back to the cutting edge. “It’s like the moment you went from listening to music to watching it,” Bostwick says. “Now we’re taking it from watching the show to actually becoming the show.”
Bostwick is showing me his maroon Cadillac convertible. “It’s not really made for this kind of driving,” he says. He pushes the up arrow on his keyboard to make the Caddy go forward, but it stalls out and slides down the heavily banked curve of a virtual rally course. Bostwick has traded in his all-black wardrobe for a flattering micro-miniskirt—a fetching choice on the female avatar he chose for the purposes of this test-drive. When he pulls the Caddy over, it attracts the attention of a guy in board shorts and a hoodie who jumps into the passenger seat beside the newly buxom Bostwick. The MTV exec ejects his suitor with a mouseclick. “Everybody wants one of these,” he says, grinning.
Bostwick has been mixing mediums in his marketing for a while. At Coca-Cola in Japan several years ago, he worked on vending machines that rang up the cell phones of passersby and let them download Coke ringtones, then offered them free beverages. When he came to MTV in 2004 to help upgrade “off-TV activities,” Bostwick envisioned something similar to existing interactive worlds, like Neopets, and dreamed up an MTV-branded networked environment that kids could explore with a personalized avatar, a world that knew their tastes and purchase history, and one they could check in on using TV, Web pages, and mobile phones.
When Bostwick pitched his ambitious vision of an avatar-ized environment, the network still hadn’t fully embraced the Web. But Toffler’s reaction was: “That’s the scariest shit I’ve ever seen, man. Let’s do it!”
Leapfrog was born, and its first venture would be tied to Laguna Beach, one of MTV’s top-rated shows. In March of 2006, the Leapfrog team started building a CG facsimile of the already surreal SoCal world of perfect bodies and obscene affluence using the technology that underpins There.com—a popular 3-D socializing space created by Makena Technologies. Compared to unfettered, user-generated worlds like Second Life, There.com gives users much less leeway to create their own objects, but it runs more smoothly, looks prettier, and gives developers tighter control over the economy and the behavior of visitors—it was a perfect fit for MTV.
Virtual Laguna Beach officially launched in September and drew almost 300,000 sign-ups in its first 10 weeks. (It took Second Life three years to attract that many members.) Just register on the Web site for free membership, download the application, pick your outfit (lowrider jeans? sundress? cowboy hat?), and you’re a virtual teenager loping along the beach. Every character you meet there is just like you: a cute, youthful avatar steered by a real person. If Second Life is like an anarchic frontier town, VLB is like Disney’s Frontierland.
Visitors to VLB can text-chat with each other, go dancing at a club, throw a party, or just whiz through the air on a hoverboard—one of which nearly takes my virtual head off as I talk to an avatar named Luvley.
Luvley’s virtual life sounds as good as any on TV. A smiling, ponytailed brunette in a jeans skirt and fuchsia halter top, she was voted VLB prom queen in November. Cliques and social success are quantifiable in this world: A quick check of Luvley’s profile shows that though she has been in-world for only three months, she has already been added to the “buddy list” of no fewer than 715 VLB members. A member of more than 20 clubs with names like Any_Party_Any_Time and The_Hot_Girls_and_Guys_of_VLB, she has also made impressive progress up various status levels, achieving a favorable ranking in categories like Fashionista and Socializer.
“Luvley is me. I don’t change my character,” says Mari Castillo, the 23-year-old Chicago nursing student behind the avatar. But her character may be changing her. Luvley recently got virtually engaged to an avatar named BrodyJ, who is Castillo’s “best guy friend” in the physical world. The pair has known each other for more than nine years, but they’ve never been romantically involved. With BrodyJ’s creator away at college, they stay in touch through VLB. “It was always a friendship thing, but now I think this whole virtual hookup is making him notice me,” Castillo says. “When he gets back home, who knows? We might hook up.”
This kind of seamless integration with the real world is exactly what MTV wants Virtual Laguna Beach to be all about. But like YouTube and MySpace, MTV still needs to find a way to make the virtual world pay. User participation and brand building aren’t enough. Jeff Yapp, an MTV executive vice president who leads the Leapfrog unit, thinks that VLB has the potential to generate bigger bank per person than the TV show from which it sprang.
“If you look at our monetization on a viewer basis for Laguna Beach, we’re making pennies a person,” Yapp says. But, he says, visitors to Virtual Laguna Beach might buy a DVD of the show, a branded T-shirt, or a virtual T-shirt for their avatar (in-world currency can be purchased with a credit card at an exchange rate of 180 MTV bucks to the US dollar). And hardcore fans will be able to get virtual crash pads and flirt via VoIP when MTV launches a $6-per-month premium service.
MTV may never match revenue from TV commercials by becoming a virtual landlord. But the opportunity for advertisers is another story. In VLB, products can be integrated into the virtual experience. Instant-messaging windows can be skinned as Cingular cell phones, virtual Pepsi cans are a surprisingly popular accoutrement, and Secret deodorant recently ran a contest in which VLB members confess a secret—the best secrets got turned into video clips that were screened for virtual audiences at the Laguna Cinema and other locales in VLB.
Advertisers can’t help but love an online space in which the hard-to-reach demographic of teenage girls makes up around 55 percent of members (which explains why a guy who signs into VLB is usually mobbed with potential admirers). About 40 percent of all members are under 17. On average, users visit six times a month for 35 minutes a session. (The typical Web site devoted to a television show receives just five six-minute visits per user per month.) And sign-ups have continued to rise since the end of the Laguna Beach season in November. Yapp talks about the network’s ability to push a “fire hose” of viewers toward the service. “The real challenge is sustaining the community over time,” Bostwick says.
He’s right about that. According to Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, kids are just as fickle online as off. “To teenagers, online communities are like nightclubs,” Cole says. “When the uncool kids start showing up, you’re out of there.”
Luvley is preparing for her in-world wedding. Her best friend, Kelee, threw her an engagement party, and more than 100 avatars showed up. Invites went out asking guests not to upstage the happy couple by wearing similar outfits. Luvley and BrodyJ also mailed out a screenshot of themselves seated in front of a glowing orange sunset, the scene of the couple’s first virtual kiss. Online romances like this may be the future of reality programming. Take the breakup of avatars LittleDebbie and BradForYou—their tale was scripted and filmed in VLB and then broadcast on MTV last November.
This is what Bostwick calls a “brand-new kind of media,” a fully symbiotic relationship between the small screen and the computer screen, between the network, its audience, and its advertisers. It’s not just that MTV wants to get its viewers pushing virtual-world content back out to television. In the Leapfrog model, the virtual world becomes an equal partner. Your experience there isn’t secondary to a TV show or video rotation; it is the show, and it is the rotation.
This year, the Leapfrog team will roll out a “music world,” a new 3-D social space that replicates hip clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Your social status in this world might be based on how early you discover new bands and share them with others,” Yapp says. Do well enough and you can become a virtual promoter, programming music at in-world clubs. Up-and-coming bands will also be able to do virtual gigs in-world, and Yapp suggests that exposure in the CG realm could eventually land them a spot on MTV. That’s a lot better than hoping an A&R guy finds your song on MySpace.
“I can’t wait to launch more worlds around different shows,” Toffler says. Tom Dooley, senior executive vice president of Viacom, says the money is committed to roll out these branded 3-D realms. “Sumner [Redstone, Viacom’s founder] is fascinated by the virtual currency and the way this world is interfacing with the real world,” says Dooley.
Explorable 3-D versions of MTV’s shows may not be enough to give the network the cultural cachet it had in the Reagan era. But the trend is clear: Kids will do more and more of their networking and socializing in 3-D spaces like VLB and There.com.
“All you could do on MySpace is leave comments and emails,” says Luvley. “This is the virtual world. You can walk, talk, play games, meet people instead of searching for them. Like any other community, you have cliques, people you trust, people you dislike. It’s pretty much the same as real life, I would say.”