Last month, a new show hit the market in the form of MTV's Geordie Shore, the UK version of popular US series Jersey Shore. The programme, featuring some of Newcastle's biggest party animals, launched with 320,000 viewers on May 25, MTV UK's biggest audience for three years. It also helped MTV.co.uk enjoy its best ever month in terms of page and video views.
However, Geordie Shore has also attracted criticism for showing punch-ups, sexual adventures and lashings of drunken behaviour. Digital Spy caught some time with Kerry Taylor, senior vice president and director of television at MTV, to discuss this remarkable programme, including social media, controversy and "getting on it like a car bonnet".
So why did you choose to recreate Jersey Shore for the UK?
"Jersey Shore has been a massive cultural phenomenon in the US, and it also became our highest-rating show here, so we knew that people really liked seeing a great cast of characters. When we learned that ITV2 was making Essex after being inspired by Jersey Shore and The Hills, which are MTV shows, we decided that we needed to do a local version of this and take back ownership, if you will."
Why did you choose Newcastle?
"We looked around the UK and Newcastle seemed the most obvious fit for us. The key thing for our audience, whether on Twitter or whatever, is that they want quotable quotes. They want to be able to play with the content and pick up all the catchphrases. We did various taster tapes and just found in Newcastle that people have this incredible turn of phrase - you just can't write it. When we were casting, people just said things like, 'On it like a car bonnet', and 'Been there like swimwear'. We just thought this is going to have a life well beyond the TV channel, it would work really well on Facebook and Twitter and so on."
So what was the process of finding the cast? Because none of them were trained actors, right?
"We worked with Lime Productions, who produce Hollyoaks and The Only Way Is Essex, on the show. Initially we had a Facebook page so that people could go on there and register their interest in taking part. We then picked out the ones who sounded interesting. But also we went on the ground and into the clubs just asking people who are the exciting characters in the area. People would then say, 'Oh, you need to speak to Vicki, or whoever'."
There has been controversy about the show's content - oral sex, fist fights in clubs, and so on - with some people describing it as "bordering on pornography". How do you respond to claims that you are putting out an irresponsible message for young people?
"I think it's really interesting because when you look at the reaction to the show on social networks, almost all of them are positive. What is fascinating about the youth audience is that they absolutely understand the medium. To those audiences, Newcastle looks like a really fun place to go out. They know that we are delivering something that is authentic and they really value that kind of warts-and-all portrayal. It is slightly outrageous but we play it out at 10 o'clock at night so it is sensitively broadcast. As a major broadcaster we also have to comply with all broadcast standards.
"The headline is that it's outrageous, but I think the reason why it is so successful and particularly why it has been so successful in a social media space is not about that; it's about the fact that you've got these characters who are funny, warm and real. You can imagine, eight young people in a house together, all a bit over excited, but actually we are at episode four now and it's settled down a bit. It's more about their relationships and their loyalty and their friendships. That is the thing that makes Jersey Shore and Geordie Shore compelling. It's the unconventional family unit with some outrageous behaviour..."
But the outrageous behaviour has led to around 20 complaints to media regulator Ofcom, while Newcastle MP Chi Onwurah has indicated she will raise questions in parliament about the show's negative portrayal of the city. So, are you not concerned that there will be some censorship coming down the line?
"No, I'm not. Because we have an in-house compliance team who we work really closely with and we are ultrasensitive about everything in the show. We make sure we follow all of Ofcom's guidelines so we wouldn't put anything in the show that we felt was inappropriate for MTV at 10 o'clock at night. We are really comfortable that we are creating an entertaining show, giving something which is authentic and raw. We are not reflecting the whole of Newcastle, it's just these people's lives. But we are also handling that sensitively because that is really important, especially for a brand like MTV."
Social media and scripted reality shows are often favoured by younger, more impressionable people. As a mainstream broadcaster, surely you wouldn't want to be seen glorifying certain types of potentially negative behaviour?
"Absolutely not. All our digital strategy has been very cast based, it's about building up the cast, it's their relationships and their quotable quotes. The key thing for us is about the humour and the warmth, because that is what people want to engage with. They want to see people on screen that they could imagine being friends with and hanging out with. We are not out there to shock, because that's not what people want. They want to be entertained."
Were you surprised by how much British audiences have taken to scripted reality shows like Geordie Shore and The Only Way Is Essex?
"No, I wasn't at all. Looking at the US, you see the impact of a recession and countries start looking more inwards. The same thing happened here. People have started becoming more proud of being British. With the royal wedding, there was a whole sense of pride in the country. Essex was genius; they really took that sort of structured reality to a whole new level and that was really inspiring for us. For them, it was really about the humour. It's got that soap opera but it's also got the comedy. People are also fascinated about [Channel 4's] Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, they are fascinated that this is on our own doorstep. When we went up to Newcastle we were just amazed that the whole of the north east was this untapped reserve filled with amazing characters and humour."
But is there not an element of the freak show, in that people are watching the weird, wonderful and often ridiculous lives of others in a voyeuristic way?
"I think that the thing that Geordie has in common with Gypsy is that it is taking a snapshot of a part of British life that not everybody has ever come across. There is that similarity there and that cultural reference. But I think for Geordie Shore it is just a bunch of young people going out and living life to the full, having a great time and I think people want a part of that. That is the thing that we see on Facebook and Twitter. They say, 'It looks like they are having such a good time'. They want to feel like they have got some kind of connection to it. Geordie is less about the freak show and more about young people having an amazing time."
What do the cast hope to get out of the programme?
"The cast just really live life for the moment. Some of them were working in call centres, one of the girls was working in a bar. They saw this as an opportunity to have a lot of fun and have a great time. They are really bright and really smart, so I am sure that they are aware that this will create opportunities for them."
Most broadcasters are now switched on to the fact that people are using smartphones, laptops and tablets while watching TV programmes. How did you harness this multi-screen approach for Geordie Shore?
"We did lots of work before the show launched. We had around 25,000 Likes on Facebook. We made sure all the cast had Blackberrys and they all had their Twitter accounts and training about how to use Twitter. Then we just put our trust in them to build their own followings. We created official Facebook and Twitter pages, and went to Newcastle to create videos so that when people read about the show in the press they could find content on Facebook and learn more. We now see big spikes of Facebook activity during the show on Tuesdays, while there is also a constant stream on Twitter. Whatever happens on air tends to drive the digital spikes."
Are you getting any negative views coming across on the social media sites?
"For the most part, no. About 95% is all positive. One person said something negative on Facebook and then there was a tirade of people saying' Why are you saying that? Why are you here if you want to be negative?' People are really getting into the spirit of it. They are saying, 'This is great for Newcastle, it makes me want to go there, it's the most fun show on TV'. Obviously it is not for everybody, but we are a youth channel and everything we do is not meant to appeal to everyone. But the people who love it, really love it."
So can we expect to see a second series for Newcastle's party animals?
"We are doing summer specials in Magaluf next week, which I imagine will be hilarious. We'll see how that goes, but I really hope that people will continue to be as excited and interested in the show as we are."
Geordie Shore continues next Tuesday night on MTV at 10pm.