By Mike Springer
If Shannon Fitzgerald had to choose one word to describe what today’s young people expect from media content, it would be: Authenticity. “They are so smart and so savvy,” says Fitzgerald, the new Vice President of Series Development at MTV. “They sniff out BS really quickly now.”
In her view, young people feel empowered by social media and the new technology and are too savvy to be easily manipulated. At the same time, they feel extremely vulnerable.
“They feel tapped in,” says Fitzgerald. “They feel connected. They control the information for the most part that goes out, and just this sense of having the power to connect to their friends and peers and family any time they want gives them a sense of empowerment. The flip side of that, and where they feel that they have a lack of control, is that there’s an unprecedented uncertainty — 9/11, the recession, Columbine. They don’t feel safe.”
MTV’s market research shows that the relationship between young people and the world has shifted dramatically since the days of Father Knows Best. Fitzgerald explains: “What kids are telling us is, ‘We feel loved and supported by our parents, but our parents are really like our peers. They’re not really showing us how to navigate the world. So we’re scared of the world. We don’t really understand how it works.’”
In response to this, MTV is increasingly steering toward programming that helps teenagers and young adults figure out how to make their way in the world. “I think you can see that in a show like Teen Mom,” says Fitzgerald, “which tells a different story each week about a pregnant teenager who has a baby, and what that really entails. If this is a choice you’re going to make as a 16- or 17- or 18-year-old girl, this is the reality of that choice — here’s something for you to think about before you have unprotected sex or go ahead and decide to have a baby.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in developing programming for the Millennial Generation is to hold their attention. “It’s really hard to lock them into something,” says Fitzgerald. “They can surf on YouTube and get two-minute shots of entertainment. We know we have to hook them really quickly or we’ll lose them. It’s short attention-span theater.”
Fitzgerald was appointed to her new post at MTV in late July after producing a number of programs for the network, including The Ashlee Simpson Show, Joe and Lucy, and Miss 17. She has developed feature-film projects with Mosaic Media Group and held executive positions at Irwin Entertainment and Fearless Films. She also executive produced the pilot for the reality series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
MTV’s demographic ranges from the early teens to the early thirties, “but 12 to 24 is our sweet spot,” Fitzgerald says. “We definitely skew a little more female — teen girls and stories that resonate for them. For teen girls it’s all about relationships—relationships with their parents, sisters, but particularly friendships. I think it would be really nice to find our version of a family show. I’m actively looking at developing a show about family from the teenager’s perspective: What’s it like to live with parents, for the love of God?”
Most of MTV’s programming is developed in-house, but Fitzgerald says she is always on the lookout for good literary material. In some cases a work of fiction can inspire a reality show, or a non-fiction property can be developed into a fictional program. “Books are a great source of material,” she says.
“You get a world, you get characters, you get to hear their think-voices, their inner monologue. It’s a challenge, adapting that and making it feel cinematic, but they are fantastic source material.”