MTV hopes to engage millennials ahead of the fall vote

Hangovers, breakups, Katy Perry lyrics - millennials are notorious for posting information online that older generations find either too personal or too trivial to share. But there is one topic where young people cry TMI - politics. At least that's what MTV found in a 2011 poll of some of its 15- to 24-year-old viewers, only 36 percent of whom said they would post a political opinion on a social media site. By contrast, 64 percent said they would share an opinion about a movie, song or piece of art.

Their reluctance to engage politically online reflects a larger generational ambivalence about government, and one that could reverberate at voting booths in November: Eighteen- to 29-year-olds helped drive Barack Obama to victory in 2008 through record turnouts. According to the U.S. census, this group made up 17 percent of eligible voters in 2008; it now makes up 24 percent.

Aware of its audience's hesitance to talk politics, MTV has set about crafting a novel way to draw in the demographic this election year. On Monday, the youth-oriented cable network will launch MTV Fantasy Election, an online political game modeled on fantasy sports leagues.

Players will draft a team of candidates vying for the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives, and earn points for how the politicians perform on a number of criteria. Using data from nonpartisan organizations including PolitiFact, and RealClearPolitics, candidates are awarded or deducted points on issues such as the transparency of their fundraising, the accuracy of their campaign statements and their place in the polls.

In a beta version of the game that MTV began testing this summer, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney collected points for engaging with constituents in a town hall meeting but lost them for failing to disclose more information about his finances. President Obama, meanwhile, gained points for interacting on Twitter and Facebook, but lost them for a campaign video that claimed Romney would replace Medicare with "nothing but a voucher."

The aim of the game, MTV President Stephen Friedman said, is to grab the attention of a generation that has soured on the political process. After turning out for the 2008 election at the highest rate since 1972 (the first year 18-year-olds could vote), 18- to 29-year-olds were hit especially hard by the flagging economy. Young Americans suffer a worse than average unemployment rate and the heavy burden of student loan debt.

"This audience has got a complicated relationship with politics," Friedman said. "Right now, politics for them is a bit like the third rail. Four years ago, (youth) engagement levels were at record highs. The level of expectation and hope was so high that our audience, as they hit the wall of this economy, were like, 'What happened?' They're very disengaged and disillusioned."

According to a poll conducted in June by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they "have given quite a lot of thought to the election"; that's down from the 67 percent who said that at the same point in the 2008 race, the biggest drop of any age group.

To get millennials (generally defined as the generation born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s) thinking harder about the election, MTV has turned to a format the age group is very comfortable with - games. Friedman said MTV was inspired by the success of the online game Darfur Is Dying, which MTVu, the network's college channel, had helped sponsor in 2006. In that game, designed by students at USC, players are refugees looking for food and shelter and trying to avoid militiamen. Despite the serious content, that game managed to attract more than 1 million players from around the world, and prompted discussion and publicity about Darfur. Critics, however, worried that the game oversimplified the crisis, which also is potentially an issue for a game that deals with complicated election year issues such as healthcare, taxes, campaign finance and fiscal policy.

The first order of business, however, is to get young people to pay attention at all, Friedman said. "We're hoping we can harness the power of video game play in a way that gets this election under the skins of our audience," he said.

For 20 years, MTV has played a big role in the political education of young people. In 1992, the network launched its Choose or Lose campaign to register young voters, and it was at a 1994 MTV town hall that then-Gov. Bill Clinton answered the question, "boxers or briefs?" In 2008, MTV began accepting political ads, and it was during the MTV Movie Awards in June that the Obama reelection campaign debuted its first national TV spot, featuring actress Sarah Jessica Parker.

According to Friedman, the network has reached out to the Obama and Romney campaigns about future candidate spots, as well as interviews and town halls.

In 2008, Obama was the chief beneficiary of the high youth turnout, and his campaign has made efforts to reignite that enthusiasm this year, including launching campus-based get-out-the-vote initiatives, putting the president on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" and "slow-jamming" his policy on student loan interest rates with a backup band.

Republicans have been trying to appeal to millennials' fiscal woes, with the youth-focused GOP Super-PAC Crossroads Generation soliciting videos online from young voters, "who have faced tough times in the Obama economy."

"Even if we know it's going to be tough to win the youth vote, it's important to try to make that case," said Kristen Soltis, vice president of the Winston Group, a Washington-based opinion research firm, who is serving as a consultant to Crossroads Generation. "Winning young voters is an investment in your future. What happens in November will reverberate for decades."

Soltis, 28, said she might give MTV's Fantasy Election a try. "I'm an avid fantasy football player and a political junkie," she said. "This is clearly something I need to get into right away. If this gets other young voters to study up more, that's great."


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