The classics are back! Viacom’s MTV Networks division has done some shop cleaning with a format adjustment to its station programming by replacing the now defunct VH1 Classic with a “Spankin’ New” channel called MTV Classic. The MTV brand was once a definitive voice of authority on ‘all things cool’ to youth audiences. However, blinded by its own success, bloated by over-expansion, and weighted down by the bureaucratic strain of the Viacom media machine, the network’s influence has waned significantly over the past ten years. Having officially jumped the proverbial shark some time in the millennium’s first decade, the new ‘Classic’ aims to reinvigorate the MTV brand by nostalgically reminding old audiences of its golden era and introducing new ones to the critically acclaimed content that built the network into one of the premier gatekeepers of pop culture relevance. But will it work?
THE MAKINGS OF A JUGGERNAUT
Launched 35 years ago in August of 1981, the Music Television network has undergone many evolutions since its introduction as the home of Rock ‘n’ Roll video. The brand was originally targeted towards young adult audiences and it played a pivotal role in facilitating the Second British Invasion of successful rock acts into the U.S. market during the 1980s. The use of videos to promote musical recordings was a well-established practice that reached new heights after the introduction of MTV. The network’s commitment to pop culture fueled record sales and demonstrated an ability to have a massive impact on the evolution of the modern celebrity as a social construct. By the time of its heavy support of Michael Jackson’s 1983 release of “Thriller”—widely regarded as one of the greatest pop culture works of all time—the MTV brand was cemented as a preeminent fixture in the consciousness of American youth; a position it would dominate for three generations.
As time progressed, the cultural zeitgeist continued to inevitably shift and the network adjusted appropriately as it came to serve as not only an outlet, but a source for youth entertainment—pushing new boundaries of social norms with the introduction of its edgy original content. From MTV News to Liquid Television, the brand found wide success in the groundbreaking programming that was suddenly surrounding the music videos that had drawn its audience in from the start. As the network came of age in the 1990s it developed a liberal ethos of creative freedom, a penchant for social activism, and a brand personality with its own unique voice. This content was largely independent of the material it was force-feeding its viewers from the hand of the maturing record industry that was on the verge of its peak, and eventual rapid decline. MTV endeavored into game shows, films, and explicit animation, and it played a pioneering role in the reality television genre with its creation of shows like “The Real World” and “Road Rules”. It asserted its authority across the pop world with elaborate ceremonies for its MTV Video Music Awards and MTV Movie Awards, and it spawned a portfolio of sister channels to support its leadership role at the epicenter of pop culture media.
THE BIGGER THEY COME…
After two decades of unbridled ascension MTV sat atop a commercial empire as a ruler of influence in the lucrative teen and young adult markets. But the signs of storms ahead were already on the horizon. The thing about gatekeepers is that one can keep people outside of their gate, but one cannot force people to stand before that gate begging for entry, in order to maintain one’s status. Since 2005 MTV has seen a steady decline totaling a loss of over 50% of its reported audience size—a secular trend that has been heavily reverberated across broadcast and cable television at large. A number of forces have taken effect in the development of this outcome, and if we are to learn anything at all from the case of MTV we must examine these factors more closely in order to produce meaningful insights.
To begin, the music industry, which had served as the DNA of MTV’s core brand identity, was on the brink of peril as digital file sharing had unexpectedly overrun the traditional models of music sales and distribution in ways that the industry had not been equipped to deal with. Meanwhile, MTV, for its part, was mid-stride in the process of abandoning the central tenets of its ‘Music Television’ concept in exchange for a greater focus on original content. Critics, including A-list musicians, levied heavy charges against the network of forgetting its purpose and having disavowed itself of its intended usefulness to the audience that made it what it was. After all, what is MTV without the music? They say that hindsight is 20/20, so one cannot fully blame the company for making the programming decisions that it did at the time. The brand had amassed a streak of hit shows in the reality-based format ranging from “Cribs” and “Pimp My Ride” to “Jackass”, and “Laguna Beach” with its series of spinoffs. Reality television was all the rave at the start of the millennium with shows like “Survivor” and “American Idol” storming onto the scene at the forefront of an onslaught of low-cost programming that would dominate both airwaves and cable for a decade to come. As an early innovator in the category with an established track record of success, MTV had the expertise and every logical impulse to pursue the reality market with the intensity that it did. Except, it did so at the cost of its identity. But the cultural climate of the time had pointed the network in that direction. The ending of “TRL” was a necessary evil, as the TRL stage and its fanfare had grown past their prime. By that time, the novelty of exceptional artistry and production values in music videos had long worn off. Everything that could be done in a four-minute audio-driven clip had essentially been tried, and referenced, and tried again as though it were new.
For quite some time MTV has faced heavily increased competition on all fronts, from music programming to pop culture news to scripted and reality programming. The sheer increase in total volume of cable stations presents a significant challenge for the network in holding its ground. It has been so inundated with competition in the digital space that even its solid online platform has not been able to gain a dominant position against the scores of newcomers to the alternative, lifestyle, and pop culture media spaces. Most importantly, the way young audiences are consuming media has been rapidly changing, and there has been limited substance that MTV could offer, in form or in function, that is consistent with those changes. Millennials and Centennials are cutting cords left and right. The commercial blockbuster has significantly given way to the long tail of on-demand and niche oriented media—much of which has been the compelling product of independent producers, operating outside of the massive conventions of industrial machines. Unsurprisingly, this timeframe coincides directly with the launch, and astronomical rise in popularity of YouTube, which took a major chunk away from MTV’s following. YouTube eliminated the monopoly that MTV and other music programming stations held for decades over their audiences’ ability to view the music videos of their favorite recording artists. Moreover, it made viewing a self-determined process for all videos, from all artists (mainstream and independent), for all time, with the possibility of repetition, rather than the random, single play programming of recent material from mainly signed artists, offered by network stations.
Programmed live-air content divided by sponsor ads has become less desirable to youth audiences as a media distribution format. This is partially an effect of viewers achieving greater control over their media consumption experiences through the use of on-demand platforms such as Tivo, DVR, YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. This is especially true concerning the viewing of music videos. Traditional programming formats have also been undermined by the tendency of online content providers to attend to these audience preferences by using less invasive, more integrated, native advertisements as part of their UX. MTV’s target demographic of viewers, ages 12 to 34, are particularly inclined to have adopted these new media preferences and habits, making the impact on the network notably more severe. Nonetheless, these facts shed logical insight on the company’s seemingly misguided decision to shift away from music video programming towards original content. MTV has charged Nielsen with undermining the market valuation of its ad space by producing inaccurate ratings reports that fail to account for the rise in recorded and online viewership that has accompanied its steady decrease in live-air audience size. Many in the industry have suspected for some time that the ratings giant’s tracking methodologies have become outmoded and inconsistent with the reality of actual media consumption patterns in the market.
Finally, social media has severely compromised the significance of MTV’s role in the manufacturing of celebrities. In the race to construct public narratives, its one time status as one of the few outlets dedicated to celebrity coverage, updates, and exposure has fallen by the wayside at the hands of the 24 hour Twitter cycle, the open book access of Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, and the non-stop flow of self-published, behind-the-scenes footage found on YouTube and Venmo.
PUTTING THE “M” BACK IN “MTV”
The network states that the new MTV Classic channel will offer "an eclectic mix of fan-favorite MTV series and music programming drawn from across its rich history, with a special focus on content from the 1990s and early 2000s." This will include favorites such as “TRL”, “Daria”, and “The Hills”, and the much-anticipated revival of the network’s critically acclaimed “Unplugged” series, which produced legendary acoustic performances from acts like Nirvana, Alanis Morissette and Korn. From a brand strategy perspective it would seem more logical to have made an expansion channel of original content while maintaining the core competencies on the flagship channel, ‘Classics’ notwithstanding. This could be done with appropriate adaptations to the modern music market by catering to the market’s proclivity for jumpstarting the careers of independent talents through viral sensationalism, similar to what has been done on REVOLT. The introduction of MTV Classic is a positive sign that the brand has at the very least heard the decade old complaints that it has lost its way, and it has responded in a constructive manner. Whether this move will be enough to salvage the aging media titan from the wreckage of the new millennium pop culture is yet to be seen. There has been much speculation as to whether or not a space even remains in the cultural landscape for a machine like MTV to thrive in the way it has historically.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
While the obvious strategy of not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’—by milking the old media model for everything it is worth until it is finished—is a logical step in the midst of great transitions, if the brand is to survive, MTV must regain some semblance of its past social influence with ‘youth’ audiences both old and new. Its 40 million Facebook fans are a testament to its ability to do just that. Social media presence is an excellent start but the company has much work to do in adjusting its market offering if it aims to ever reign atop the pyramid again. Such a move may require extensive innovation in the realms of content, formatting, and platform structures. The network was founded, and reached the height of its success by continuously introducing simple yet original concepts. New developments in live experience, snackable content, and perhaps some yet to be imagined media product might all go a long way towards actualizing the network’s return to prominence. But one thing is for certain: We want our MTV, and if we’re going to have it, it needs to be retrofitted with new ideas that allow the old concepts to succeed in the new market.