Aug 28, 2020

Season 35 of the reality competition show earned its highest ratings in eight years and drove a social peak for the brand.

There may have been a dearth of professional sports this summer, but there was plenty of athleticism and competitive drama in MTV’s The Challenge: Total Madness to help fill the void.

As a result, this season of MTV's long-running reality competition series, which ran from April through July, was the highest-rated in eight years. Ratings for the premiere climbed 47% from last season’s average and it was the most social cable series for the night according to Deadline. The finale on July 15 attracted 1.5M total viewers and was the #1 cable telecast among P18-34 and P18-49.

"The Challenge is big and bad and bold, and the ratings show that this season,” Emer Harkin, executive producer and showrunner, told Entertainment Weekly. "It was such ridiculous timing that we aired when we did when the country went into an awful lull...for us to be the competition sporting outlet that everybody so desperately needed, it also bolsters our case for the importance that our show plays and our massive audience in the states."

Its success is also a testament to the series’ continued evolution on- and off-screen. The show has updated its production and game design, as well as the format of its storytelling across social, to deliver an immersive and action-packed experience across all platforms. Its social campaign during the past  season drove more than 1.9 million social interactions across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagraman increase of more than 85% from the prior season.

Making the Experience More Extreme

MTV’s The Challenge pits reality stars against each other in multiple physically demanding mini games. It’s become more difficult for contestants since its debut in 1999, so much so that Bill Simmons has called the show “America’s fifth major sport.” The series requires more skill and athletic ability with each season that passes, leading to intense matchups and elimination moments between competitors.

For Season 35, the brand leaned into the competitive aspect of the reality series both with the framing and formatting of the show. For the first time ever, the franchise introduced red skull trophies into the competition, which the contestants would only earn if they won an elimination matchup and having one was the only possible way they would be able to take part in the final to win the $1 million prize. It was a twist no fan or competitor was expecting.


The Challenge is all about athleticism and performance and winning, so we looked at the previous few seasons, which we do every season, and said, ‘What worked? What didn’t?,” Harkin told Variety in discussing the addition of red skulls. “The overarching thing we realized was people really have to be forced to perform here.”

The post-apocalyptic theme also upped the need to perform on the part of the 28 contestants. It was an immersive setting in which the stars were living in a bunker without connection to the outside world. The first challenge required each person to pull a barrel with medical supplies 500 feet across a field while host TJ Lavin drove a tank across the field and occasionally destroyed their progress, and the gameplay only became more intense as the season continued.

Expanding the Action Across Social

Across social media, MTV leaned into the theme of madness with video compilations, original content with the cast, fan-favorite polls, and sports-themed social content. There were also new original content series like Battle of the Cams, which prompted fans to vote in Twitter polls to see exclusive GoPro footage from one contestant’s point of view every week.

 “When our audience isn’t watching the show on linear, they’re craving more content,” says Eric Dimitratos, senior director of social and digital marketing at MTV. “We’re always experimenting with what we can do on social to keep things fresh and bring more original content and exclusives to the fans.” 

In response to the cancellation of NCAA’s March Madness, MTV created a bracket of elimination battles between competitors from the show’s previous 34 seasons. Fans voted for their favorite via Twitter polls in the days leading up to the premiere of season 35 in April. Engagement across Twitter increased by more than 249% compared to season 34 in part because of activations like the Total Madness Bracket.

 “The relationship fans have with returning Challengers is similar to how a lot of sports fans feel about their favorite teams,” says Dimitratos. “The perfect thing about the bracket challenge is that it merged both those worlds, engaging diehard Challenge fans with a sports style bracket. Fans had to think back on iconic, competition filled moments they loved which really amped up the excitement for season 35.”

The MTV social team, including Andy Nauffts and Amanda Becker, balanced the bite-sized, exclusive content with long-form compilation videos, featuring fan-favorite moments from past seasons, as well as reaction videos featuring the cast of Season 35 watching some of the season’s highlights. In total, average video views on the show’s official Instagram channel grew more than 28%, and the show’s official YouTube channel garnered more than 7 million views in March for an increase of more than 208% month-over-month.



With reporting assistance from Sarah D'Alton.

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