Pop Culture

I Want My MTV (Classic): Nostalgia and The Quest for Comeback


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?


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.


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.



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.



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. 


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Image by Super Dasil - https://www.facebook.com/SuperDasil/

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We have reached watershed in the cultural mainstream. One gets the notion that something odd is afoot as cars are witnessed pulling over repeatedly down long stretches of urban thoroughfare. Each day scores of pedestrians—male and female, young and old, from all walks of life—can be seen roving public areas, staring into the glowing displays of their smart phones in search of something new. They gather along the sidewalk, often smiling, greeting, and speaking among strangers before moving on to the next stop.

The driving force behind this sudden shift in social activity, as you must have heard by now, is Pokémon GO—an augmented reality app for mobile smart devices. Since its July 5, 2016 U.S. release, the game has caused a frenzy across America’s urban landscapes, and it’s not just for kids anymore! The app has had observable impacts on cultural, political, and economic trends since its introduction. There have been reports of robberies, injuries, traffic incidents, and massive player stampedes from Central Park to Santa Monica. Democratic Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton, even scheduled a campaign rally to be held at a Pokémon Gym, placing ‘lures’ at nearby PokéStops to draw public attention. The game, which is free to play, has topped download charts for both the Apple and Google stores, becoming the most downloaded mobile game ever in the U.S. Nintendo, which holds a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company, has seen its stock nearly double over the past two weeks. GameStop stores with virtual PokéStops and Pokémon Gyms at their locations have also seen a 100% increase in sales. T-Mobile has offered to ‘Unleash Pokémon GO’ by exempting data charges while playing the app as part of its T-Mobile Tuesdays (#GetThanked) campaign. Moreover, this has all occurred before the release of Pokémon GO in its home of origin, Japan.


Having endured the 18 years since its U.S. introduction on Nintendo Game Boy and its subsequent skyrocket to household recognition with the 1997 debut of its anime series—(ポケットモンスタ) Poketto Monsutá, meaning Pocket Monsters, Romanized and abbreviated as ‘Pokémon’, has survived to fight another day in the cutthroat arena of youth entertainment. As titans of the sector, ranging from Power Rangers to Ninja Turtles, have rollercoastered their way through the decades with brand revivals of variable success, none has matched their own initial triumph, let alone tapped into the modern market with the viral sensationalism that we have now witnessed with the coming of Pokémon GO. Other product manias, such as Tickle Me Elmo, Mine Craft, and Air Jordan sneakers, have garnered dedicated followings in their own right, yet even these have not reached the level of fervor stirring around the digital menageries of Pokémon. Perhaps the phenomenon of Pokémon GO is most readily likened unto the 1975 case of the Pet Rock.  Though such a comparison would be valid, the present state of things appears much more complicated than a basic market fad. One might do better to relate the 90s craze over the Tamagotchi to the Pet Rock. Indeed, there are strong similarities between Pokémon and these other cases, and there are many ingredients of the common fad in Pokémon’s active mix. But a different story is told by the midnight crowds found lingering in Culver City and the Santa Monica Pier on otherwise uneventful weeknights—basking in the glory of endless Pokémon lures placed on a dozen PokéStops within arm’s length of one another.


Why all the fuss? Pokémon’s storylines and artwork are relatively simplistic compared to some of the more breathtaking Anime we’ve seen exported from Japan in the past two decades. Some of the creature concepts and naming conventions can seem uninspired as well. To further complicate matters, all of this success has come on the back of what could otherwise be considered an abysmal failure for a mobile application launch.  The game has thrived despite having an ordinarily fatal rating of less than 3.5 stars on the Google Play Store as a result of it being plagued by technical bugs that cause constant disruptions requiring players to restart, frequent server crashes, and reputedly questionable controllability of gameplay. So what has led so many to jump on the bandwagon of Pokémon fanaticism? How did we get here? And what happens next?

Many are scratching their heads at this extraordinary phenomenon. But there is a science to the madness, and the goal of this analysis is to shed some light on the subject for brand managers and consumers alike.

1. The release of Pokémon GO was largely secretive, causing it to gain enthusiasm through the element of surprise.

We’ve seen the ability of established pop culture brands like Beyoncé and Drake to save marketing costs and gain greater enthusiasm for their releases through the element of surprise. Pokémon is a well-established legacy brand in the gaming community with a multi-generational following, capable of shutting down Rockefeller Plaza in New York City on a brisk autumn night. Much like its musical counterparts, Pokémon GO gained momentum from the secrecy surrounding its drop date; making it an instant topic of conversation once the downloading began.

2. Pokémon GO is highly novel in its use of Augmented Reality.

VR & AR are two extremely hot spaces in the tech world currently making rapid strides toward diffusion to the critical mass. Pokémon’s ability to capitalize on this trend in a relevant way, for free, in the mobile sector, has made all the difference in the magnitude of its explosion.

3. Pokémon GO appeals to consumers of every stripe.

The Pokémon franchise is all-inclusive. It is targeted unisexually with young male gamers at the center of its nucleus alongside young female consumers attracted to the cuteness of characters like Pikachu and Jigglypuff.  In the most inner orbit, many older cohorts of these segments experience nostalgia with the Pokémon Go game, having grown up engaging with the Pokémon brand. Outside of this, an ocean of new fans has been co-opted simply due to the level of attention the game has received. Finally, in the outermost orbit, the high degree of physical interaction the game requires has streamlined an onslaught of late adopters in a relatively short time frame, as even middle-aged and senior pedestrians exercising, walking their dogs, or just taking a stroll can be spied stopping to collect loot at their local PokéStop while heading down the street.

4. The game promotes exercise and outdoor activity.

Playing Pokémon GO is a marked break from traditional gaming because it obliges players to exit their dwellings in order to play. Rather than running amuck across a virtual city a la Grande Theft Auto or The Amazing Spiderman, Pokémon utilizes a smart phone’s GPS, requiring trainers to physically move to different locations if they want to move in the game. Furthermore, the game encourages exercise by including bonuses in the form of eggs that require low speed travel to incubate, warding off the use of cars to obtain their benefits.

5. Pokémon GO exploits the benefits of several entertainment categories.

Pokémon GO has achieved an optimal balance between the two wildly popular realms of gaming and sports entertainment. The sheer volume of Pokémon, the level of engagement available with each species of creature, and the logical structure of the game place the franchise in a class of its own. Like a sports league, there is room for every fan to have their favorites. The game’s roster offers the collecting and hording aspect commonly associated with sports trading cards. Trading cards have historically been a premier part of the Pokémon merchandise catalog, with the same virtual competition component of other successful card based anime brands like ‘Yu-Gi-Oh!’ The physical aspect of the game gives players an active experience similar to participation in a sporting event, while the large number of participants makes the gameplay comparable to a Multiplayer Massive Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) such as League of Legends, World of Warcraft or The SIMS. The greatest advantage of Pokémon GO is that it retains the benefits of both these entertainment categories with a successful brand that is primed for mainstream consumption beyond the restrictions of either the gaming or sports communities.

 6. The game is designed to increase its own level of exposure.

Pokémon GO is a textbook example of brand activation. It has initiated a self-perpetuating cycle of reinforcement for itself and the Pokémon brand. After Beta testing the game with instructions, Pokémon GO was released with limited tutorial resources built in, leaving players to either search the internet for advice or—as was intended by the game makers—converse with other gamers. The more people speak about it, the more the game comes to bear on the public conscience. Also, it is important to note that the game is unique in that it is a highly conspicuous experience because people can see trainers playing from substantial distances. Seeing people play all over also weighs on the public conscience. Even with hit interactive group apps like Words With Friends or Candy Crush Saga it is not necessarily apparent from close proximity, let alone down the street, that someone is playing one of those games. Pokémon GO players are identifiable as they pace sidewalks and parks, and often even in closed and tented vehicles, merely from their erratic stop-and-go driving patterns. The readily apparent popularity of the game combined with the manipulation of supplies of prized Pokémon and the resulting public reactions have lead to an excess of media attention, which has in turn expanded awareness and enthusiasm for the game. Add to this mix the increased sale of merchandise, and the cycle goes on with no end in sight. The monetization of the game’s virtual landscape through sponsored Stops and Gyms is an obvious route to riches. Retailers have recently begun to capitalize on the game’s success independently, while adding more flame to the Pokémon fire.

7. Pokémon GO is a shared social experience.

Not since Facebook blazed onto the scene, fresh on the heels of an ailing MySpace, have we seen this level of activity generated around a consumer software product. Yet Facebook was about the functional value it offered rather than the cultural impact it signified as a brand. Although the defeat of its predecessor was largely a culturally driven phenomenon, Facebook’s major selling point had more to do with its use benefits in establishing social connections, and its symbolic distinctions from MySpace per se, rather than the type of brand affinity that we witness with product manias. Pokémon GO is a social application in nature, but it is very distinct from Facebook or similar social platforms because its social aspect is based on short-term real world interactions, rather than sustained virtual interactions.

In a society bursting at the seams from the effects of systemic injustice, sharp divisions in political ideology, and severe challenges to economic stability, Pokémon GO taps into what is perhaps our most basic of human instincts—the need to be connected and experience togetherness. Trainers greet one another on the streets with respectful nods, and smiles. They congregate around Stops and introduce themselves as they discuss their game performance. They go to urban centers with excessive PokéStops and flood them with lures, drawing non-stop crowds into the wee hours of the night. In these spaces there is a general sense of euphoria in the air among the crowd, as literally thousands of players experience the overstimulating joy of catching weeks worth of rare Pokémon in one fell swoop. They appear to relish the act of being included in the massive momentum of this cultural tsunami.


Speculators have all wondered, “How long will it last?” As with all manias and rapidly rising cultural phenomena, Pokémon GO must inevitably peak and level off. However, there is much in store for its future as it will undergo evolutions in rules and play, as is common with mobile applications. The Pokémon franchise faces no shortage of material with which to expand this product. Theories have already run wild on the Internet about the introduction of several powerful characters not included in the current version, the introduction of trading, and other changes to the game. Only time will tell if the game and brand are able to sustain their success once the plateau is reached. Regardless of that outcome, the fact remains that Pokémon GO has owned the summer of 2016, left its mark, and in so doing has reinvented the way brands must think about activation. All we can do now is watch, learn, and try to “catch ‘em all”.