Britney Spears Can't Save MTV

Let me ask you a question. If you controlled the MTV Video Music Awards show, would you have let Britney Spears open the festivities? I mean, did it take a genius to figure out that she'd probably be a bad idea? Her off performance comes at a bad time, considering a few of Viacom's (NYSE: VIA  ) flagship channels -- including MTV -- are having problems. While it's too early to tell how the latest edition of MTV's annual music awards fared, according to The New York Times, the awards show alone has been trending downward over the last four years, with the audience numbers for the 2006 program dropping 28%.

According to Marketwatch, MTV reported a ratings pullback during the second quarter; the channel's average rating was 0.6 (688,000 viewers) for the quarter, vs. 0.8 (826,000 viewers) in the previous year. Nickelodeon was said to be flat in its ratings performance, coming in at an average rating of 1.6 (1.7 million viewers). Unfortunately, since one of Viacom's most attractive investment angles is its cable division, this can only be perceived as a bad sign.

During the last conference call, CEO Philippe Dauman introduced a slate of new and returning series that Viacom is hoping will address the "soft spots" and build up a better block of programming for both MTV and Nick.

One of MTV's new shows, put on by Ashton Kutcher, is called Room 401. No, it's not a class about retirement accounts; it's sort of a horror-movie version of Punk'd, and it did well during its premiere. Other programs that are being looked at to bring back the viewers are Real World: Sydney, The Hills, Newport Harbor, and Life of Ryan -- all of which utilize the "reality television" recipe that MTV favors.

To help Nick counteract Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) and its High School Musical phenomena, there's a new show on Nick called iCarly, featuring Miranda Cosgrove of Drake & Josh fame. The show features a character who makes Web-based content. As one might expect, a companion website is promoted where viewers can upload their own content. In fact, some lucky kids might even see their video ideas on the show. This should be an interesting element, considering that the current generation is growing up in the era of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) YouTube. Other shows Viacom is counting on include Back to the Barnyard and Ni Hao, Kai-lan, the latter of which will follow the Dora the Explorer formula and expose preschoolers to Chinese culture.  

Will this new programming slate get MTV and Nick growing again? The jury's still out, but Dauman knows he needs to staunch the ratings bleed at MTV and Nick as soon as possible. Maybe he could take a page from Viacom's post-split counterpart, CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) , which is awash these days in dividend hikes and an acquisition. I still believe Viacom is a worthy long-term idea in the media space, and I'd view these current troubles as short-term in nature until proven otherwise. For now, we'll just assume that MTV and Nickelodeon -- similar to Britney's recent performance -- are wandering around on stage trying to get it right.

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