The questions are inevitable every year around the time of MTV’s Video Music Awards. ‘Why is MTV still airing the VMAs when it no longer airs music videos?’ Which leads into the now cliché question, ‘Why doesn’t MTV play music videos anymore?’ It’s a complaint as old as Justin Bieber, and one sweep of Twitter last week pre VMAs proves – the generation who grew up on MTV is still bitter about it.

The automatic, and equally bitter response is, ‘reality killed the video star.’ And while it’s true, reality did kill it, it wasn’t reality shows per se. The reality of the marketplace drastically changed for MTV and it either had to change along with it, or die by its format. And guess what? Every brand should pay attention.

MTV’s stamp was simple and destined for success when it launched in 1981; no competition, no molds to break and record labels willing to give it access to its artists and music videos for free. Voila, a cost-effective format was born and branded.

But MTV didn’t anticipate the brand it would become; a go-to for pop culture relevance and thee voice for young people. It grew into a cultural phenomenal over the next decade, winning the loyalties of a generation trying to define itself. Some were rebelling, some were trying to change the world, everyone was trying to be edgy and as a whole, we wanted to confront and conquer social issues that had been swept under the rug. So in 1992, MTV gave it a platform.

Enter, “The Real World” – MTV’s first real brand shift and our first dose of REAL reality TV. The plot was simple, ‘seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped.’ It wasn’t rooted in music and unlike today’s reality shows, it had no script or production value. It was gritty, in-your-face and tackled race relations, sexuality, homophobia, AIDS, addiction and the inevitably hard transition into adulthood.

“The Real World” was revolutionary, BUT sorry haters, you can’t blame MTV for the onslaught of reality programming to come. That dubious honor goes to the television spectacle known as the OJ Simpson trial. Yep, the televised trial in 1995 was the first ‘reality show’ to systematically shift people’s regular viewing habits. It also taught industry execs that voyeuristic television wasn’t a passing fad. ‘Real’ dramas could rake in ratings and be produced on the cheap. It was a revenue recipe for success.

So while television started steering into seemingly unscripted territory by the turn of the millennium, and MTV followed suit, the music channel had more hurdles to clear on the horizon; a new generation and new technology. I’m going to let sketch comedian Brian Firenzi, playing the part of MTV’s former head of programming, explain. It’s brutally honest and brilliant!

The reality is, the who, what, when, where and why of MTV’s landscape had changed completely. Millennials were getting their new music, music news, music videos and exclusive access to musicians’ personal lives from everywhere but MTV. So what did Millennials want from MTV?

Well, MTV commissioned a focus group in 2008 comprised of hundreds of 18-24 year olds to find out. They discovered Millennials were so over scripted ‘rich kid’ reality shows and rebellion, in general. Perhaps the biggest shocker, they expressed being besties with their parents and wanting more family-centric shows. So that year, MTV launched a programming overhaul; music videos became completely obsolete, as did the once-prized “TRL,” and shows about wealthy kid problems like “Laguna Beach” and “My Super Sweet 16” were replaced by more average teen/family dramas like, “Teen Mom,” “16 and pregnant,” “Awkward” and “Teen Wolf.” Soon thereafter, MTV dropped its “Music Television” tag line, altogether. And it worked, MTV was once again relevant with its key demo (the youngsters!) So like it or not, the rebrand was a necessary rebirth for MTV.

And the current day VMAs fit MTV’s brand bill. Long gone are the days of outrageous performances and spontaneous acts of rebellion garnering buzz. Music isn’t the star of the show anymore, in fact, it’s barely a footnote. And the powers-that-be don’t rely on spontaneous moments stealing the spotlight, opting to script them to ensure immediate digital turn-around. Yes, the VMAs have become the ultimate reality show, produced in dramatic micro-stories, to specifically play on social media for the audience that matters most to MTV. It too is a modern day success story.

So, bitch all you want, but MTV’s journey through tricky market changes offers lessons for any brand.

  • Brands must stay relentlessly customer-centric. They must pay attention to how its audience is changing and anticipate what it will want in the future. Brands must constantly connect with its customers.
  • Brands can’t be afraid to ask ‘the relevance’ question. Its livelihood depends on the answers. Do the research and determine what, if anything, is obsolete. A complete brand overhaul, a la MTV, may not be needed, but part tweaks may be necessary to stay in the game.
  • Brands must embrace change. A brand can either hold on to its narcissistic need to be right, or make the changes proven necessary to survive. Technology and industry trends are changing at a feverish pace. If a brand isn’t keeping up with the times, it’ll be left behind.
  • Brands can’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers. There will undoubtedly be some resentment when customers are no longer part of the target demo, but brands must cater to its audience with the most buying power. That’s the nature of the ‘supply and demand’ beast.

Now to all my fellow old school MTV fans, it’s time to stop complaining and face the music; times have changed, we’re getting old and no longer the golden demo for programming. So cut the cord, start living in the real world and relive your youth privately on YouTube!


Author: Reina Carbetta

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