MTV’s Teen Mom Crosses the Pond

Rebecca Knight, the VP of production management and business affairs at Viacom International Media Networks, talks to TV Formats about the broad appeal of MTV’s Teen Mom and how the show is being adapted for U.K. audiences.

Now gearing up for its season-six premiere in August, the U.S. version of Teen Mom (now Teen Mom OG) launched in 2009 as a spin-off of MTV’s docuseries 16 and Pregnant, which chronicles the pregnancies of teenage mothers-to-be as they prepare to give birth. The Teen Mom format “continues to follow some of the girls from 16 and Pregnant on their next journey, which is being a teen mom,” says Rebecca Knight, the VP of production management and business affairs at Viacom International Media Networks.

Additional iterations in the U.S. include Teen Mom 2, which debuted on MTV in 2011 and recently aired its seventh season, and the short-lived Teen Mom 3, in addition to after-shows and specials. The Teen Mom format debuted locally in Poland in 2014, and now MTV in the U.K. is launching a local version, Teen Mom UK, with the eight hour-long episodes produced by True North set to premiere in November. 2016-08-01-Teen-Mom-OG-in-the-U.S.

The concept originated from MTV’s former head of reality programming and executive VP of series development, Lauren Dolgen. “She was doing research and realized that the U.S. had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and teen births in the developed world,” Knight says. Teen pregnancy is an issue that impacts the demographic MTV reaches, and Knight says Dolgen felt “there was a story there, and she wanted to talk to the girls and get their viewpoints of what it is like to be a teen mom.”

“If a show is good and people like it, they’re going to watch it, and that’s what happened with Teen Mom across all the MTV channels globally,” Knight adds. “When you’ve got a show like that, you start to think, ‘Let’s make a local U.K. version’ because [teen pregnancy] is a universal truth in every territory.”

Indeed, audiences are learning from the moms’ experiences. According to Knight, a 2014 study found that MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom had significantly reduced births to teens. “People were talking about [teen pregnancy], they were debating, and [the shows] brought the issue to the forefront,” she says. “Yes, these moms are teens, and they are young, but they are also adults in that they know how to look after their babies, and they have got stories to tell.”

The key to successfully adapting a U.S. show is to “keep the essence of why the format works and why it is popular,” Knight explains. “We don’t want to go too far away from what the U.S. format is because it’s so strong and successful. We don’t want to make a factual documentary.”

Knight adds: “There’s warmth, there’s humor, and all of the moms are on a journey. They’re telling their own story, and that’s something every territory can pick up. We will [simply] have a U.K. cast so it appeals to the U.K. demographic. We’ll have our own humor, which is a little more sarcastic, and we’ll have our own warmth from that.”

Along with finding its own humor and tone, the U.K. adaptation of Teen Mom will differ from the U.S. versions in other ways. U.K. audiences will follow the lives of five young mothers, rather than four, as is the case with both Teen Mom OG and Teen Mom 2. In addition, while each episode of the U.S. iterations features all four of the girls, Knight says that may not be the case in the U.K. “It depends on what they’re doing that week. The show is not produced, so we stand back and watch.” Though she adds that like the U.S. version, none of the episodes will focus solely on one mom: “You are following the lives of several moms as a narrative all the way through the eight episodes.”

Another difference is the casting itself, which Knight says is “always a challenge.” For Teen Mom OG and Teen Mom 2, MTV cast young mothers who appeared on 16 and Pregnant. “We’re going straight to Teen Mom UK,” she says. “We were inundated with people wanting to be on the show. It’s one of the largest sets of casting in terms of how many people applied. That poses a challenge because you need to do due diligence.”

According to Knight, it is important to find young mothers who have a support network of family and friends, or the child’s father. “You’re not just casting the teen mom, you’re also casting for the ensemble,” Knight notes. “There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that need to be put together, and of course [the cast] also needs to be engaging and authentic.”

In the U.K., viewers will get to know the moms even more intimately through a “new twist that we’re putting on the TV format,” Knight says. Each girl will receive a phone to record herself when the production crew is not around. The idea is to allow the girls to be more candid, and the footage from their phones is meant to “get under the skin of their emotions, in a place that they feel safe and can express themselves.”

“It’s an uplifting series,” Knight says. “The reason Teen Mom is so successful is because it’s so true to the moms. It gets under their skin and tells their story from their end. The script is not written; it stems from their viewpoints. Editorially, that is very important. It’s the reality of their journeys. They have highs and lows, they have good days and bad days, but ultimately they have love for their children.”