Rocking Their World


If you’re at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night watching the MTV Video Music Awards, or catching the show from home, you might see something as culturally telling as anything you’d find onstage: Members of the network’s brass doing their best to keep a game face. After watching ratings plummet by a whopping 25% at last year’s disastrous P. Diddy-hosted VMAs from Miami—the event’s worst number in eight years—MTV returned the show to New York and hired new producers to resurrect the excitement in what was once a must-see event.

In a New York Times stage-setter article last week for the show, these producers mentioned “creating a media bubble” for the VMAs and an environment where we’d get to see the stars, warts and all, especially if we surfed to MTV’s Overdrive Website.

I wish them all well. Maybe the new team can recapture some of the old fashizzle. But no matter how well- intentioned or -planned the VMAs are, all involved will be lucky to escape the malaise that MTV currently finds itself mired in.

The network still makes buckets of money—an estimated $4.3 billion in ad revenue—but that does nothing to alter the persistent sense that it’s, like, so yesterday.

MTV brass is at least smart enough to know they run the risk of deepening this perception. Why do you think the network ignored its recent 25th anniversary?  Do the folks who run the place want to remind their target audience it was the place their parents once thought was totally rad? MTV’s core 12-24 audience drifted down 5% in the second quarter.

The buzz has inevitably moved on. MySpace, YouTube and other sites making noise like they might be next next big thing—like Grouper, which Sony just bought—are where the crowd seems to be.   

The go-go days of 15%-20% revenue growth for MTV and its corporate brethren, from Nickelodeon to VH1, seem to be, in a word, receding, as slow ad sales and international operations hold the unit to an estimated 8% revenue growth this year. It doesn’t help matters that parent Viacom is in the midst of its own high-profile woes.

Much juicier than whatever orchestrated outrageousness this year’s VMAs might cook up—remember Britney and Madonna’s lip-lock way back in ’03?—is the drama playing out on the Paramount lot. In the wake of Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and Tom Cruise’s parting of the ways, everyone is wondering who’s crazier.

Is it the old mogul coot? Or the middle-aged movie- star coot? And with the company’s stock now down 15%, nobody is jumping on any couches.

This won’t exactly put anyone in the partying mood, but say this about MTV: Over its quarter century, the network frequently managed to rock its way out of the creative doldrums.

Its usually savvy President Christine Norman explained to The New York Times that MTV consciously stayed away from any splashy celebration of its silver anniversary because “our audience is reveling in where we’re taking them next.”

Intentionally or not, Norman is playing that tune backwards.

The MTV demo wants to shape and control the media it consumes, not the other way around. Executives calling the shots may think they’re the ones in charge, but it’s really the audience they want to reach that runs the show—or should.

Want proof? Tune into Thursday night’s VMAs. Or better yet, check out the ratings on Friday.

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