I watched no television in college until senior year.
That year I shared a terrace apartment with three classmates. Each of us had our own bedroom. We shared a tiny kitchen, a living room with a table and four chairs, and a bathroom.
Luckily one of us had a TV.
Going to school in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York meant that you either got cable television or you watched white noise.
It was my first exposure to cable TV. More than five channels. Who knew?
MTV was a boon. I watched it as I did my weekly dinner prep. It transformed the monotony of dicing, slicing and chopping into a joyful activity.
It also taught me to take care while dancing with a knife in my hand.
It was so much fun and different than anything I’d ever seen. I remember the freaky mind-blowing creativity of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video, Robert Palmer’s suave “Addicted to Love” and the excitement when two Vassar students’ entry to Madonna’s “True Blue” video contest garnered enough votes to make the Top 10 and aired nationally.
Now I have a son in college and a daughter set to go next year. MTV looks nothing like it did then.
Mostly what I want to know is: where’s the music?
Video Killed the Radio Star and Had a Good TV Run
MTV launched at 12:01am on August 1, 1981 by airing The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which had been produced in 1979 when The Buggles could not be at the British TV show Top of the Pops to perform and sent the video instead.
Though early music videos would seem rough now, they were ground-breaking then. MTV’s rebellious attitude was palpable from the beginning. Fans loved the attitude and the visuals that accompanied the music.
The 24-hour music video station was a hit and quickly attracted attention from pop and rock stars as a key promotional vehicle for their music.
Video production value and cost skyrocketed. Hollywood directors, top choreographers and experienced production teams became the norm.
Just four years after The Buggles’ home camera-ish production, Michael Jackson released “Thriller,” a 13-minute long video with a cohesive narrative whose repetition increased MTV viewership ten-fold. It cost over $500,000 to produce.
Experimenting on the Side
What does a rebellious teen do? Experiment.
Most music videos only last a few minutes, the length of the song they depict. MTV viewers watched the ones they liked. Each new video was a stay-or-go decision on the channel.
In search of steadier ratings, MTV began creating half-hour programs in the early 1990s.
Inspired by the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, MTV created The Real World by choosing seven or eight young adults to live together for three months in a new city in a loft and filming them 24/7. The first episode aired on May 21, 1992. Critics panned the show, but MTV’s audience loved it.
The Internet and Reality TV Interrupt the Party
By the late 1990s, music videos’ popularity was waning.
MTV tried to breathe life into them by creating Total Request Live (TRL), a top-40 countdown-like show hosted by Carson Daly that ran afterschool at 3:30pm.
Tween and teen girl fans began showing up to MTV’s Times Square office to see the bands that TRL featured. The live audience boosted the show which had 800,000 daily viewers at its peak in 1999 per Nielsen.
Ultimately nothing could save music videos’ declining viewership on TV. MTV’s early forays into reality TV helped the network stay afloat.
As reality TV became the rage, internet usage soared as well. Once YouTube appeared in 2005, fans could find their favorite music videos online.
Musicians no longer needed to pay MTV to promote their music and to build their fan base. They could do that on YouTube and via social media for free.
Over time MTV dropped most of its music video programming in favor of reality TV shows that at first had some music connection, like The Osbournes and Nick and Jessica. Later reality shows on the network such as Jersey Shore and Teen Mom had little or no musical connection but drove ratings.
In 2010 MTV dropped the Music Television tagline from its logo.
Where’s the Music in MTV now?
But even the reality TV engine propping up MTV slowed. From 2010 to 2015, MTV lost 40 percent of its 12-34 year old target audience according to Nielsen.
For the past several years MTV has struggled to chart its way back up.
Chris McCarthy, who has had successful runs at sibling music stations MTV2 and VH1, became President of MTV in October 2016. He was the third executive to take the helm in 13 months.
McCarthy sees reinfusing music to MTV as a key driver to turn things around and has stated “Everything we do should be threaded with music and music talent.”
But it is unlikely they will return to airing music videos. Instead McCarthy says music has become “a character” in shows like Siesta Key and Catfish TV via their soundtracks which viewers can find listed on MTV’s website.
MTV relaunched an hour-long TRL last September but the show bombed and was pulled in late November. Off air all December, it was resurrected in January in a half-hour format and then put on hiatus again in March.
McCarthy claims that TRL has been “killing it” and now has three versions: Total Request Late-Night which has been piloting since February 19, a two-hour afternoon TRL that returned April 23, and Total Request A.M. which debuted April 23.
The idea of the TRL triumvirate is to appeal to different demographics and day parts.
So far MTV has seen a small ratings uptick but it has a long way to go to reclaim its position as an arbiter of youth pop culture.
The Problem with MTV’s Plan
MTV is a brand in a protracted adolescence with an identity crisis.
Originally targeted to 12-34 year olds, it is unclear who their primary audience is now. They recently reported nine consecutive months of growth in primetime ratings among adults 18-49.
Demographics aside, while teen rebelliousness has always been a defining characteristic of MTV, it was the music that differentiated the brand and that made it a cultural touchstone.
Threading music through programs isn’t the same as focusing on music.
And without the Music, MTV is just another station trying to appeal to the viewing public with reality programs. It has no differentiator and competes with titans like Big Brother, Project Runway, The Bachelor and The Amazing Race.
MTV has to face the music, literally and figuratively, to revive its brand long-term. It has to find a new and different way to showcase music.
How Your Brand Can Avoid MTV-like Struggles
MTV’s problems began when it failed to see the internet coming. They waited too long to figure out what Music Television might look like if it wasn’t driven by videos. They still don’t know.
Don’t let this happen to your brand.
An annual strategic analysis will help. My favorite is a SWOT analysis, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
Catalog the strength and weaknesses of your company as objectively as you can. Those are internal factors.
Opportunities and threats refer to external forces that you can’t control (like the internet) but that buoy or harm your business. Take the time to thoroughly list these factors and give them serious consideration. The opportunities could be great and the threats you plan for can save your brand.
It’s easy to think that as long as you keep doing what you do well, you are immune to threats. But threats are part of life. You can’t control them and yet they can have a profound effect on your brand.
Consider Poland Springs for example.
If I packed a bottled water in my child’s lunch box 15 years ago, I’d be seen as a health-conscious mom. Today I’d be viewed as environmentally reckless sending a plastic bottle daily. Poland Springs changed nothing, but environmental awareness changed consumer attitudes.
I don’t buy cases of bottled water anymore. And I don’t watch much TV.
But I still listen to music and dance around the kitchen as I cook!
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