On August 1st, MTV turned 34 years old. That means MTV has been around for more than a third of a century.
But the relevance of this accomplishment is lost on the channel, as it intentionally fails to acknowledge any of its birthdays anymore (MTV last chose to celebrate its birthday, back in 2001, when the channel turned 20 years old). No one likes growing old, but MTV is especially prone to Peter Pan syndrome: The channel refuses to grow up.
MTV debuted on August 1st, 1981, famously playing the Buggles’ prophetic “Video Killed the Radio Star” as its first ever music video.
The rest, of course, is history, as MTV grew into one of the most influential television channels of all time. Ironically, while the channel started off only playing music videos, the channel’s success stemmed from moving away from the video format. This allowed the channel to do two very important things:
1) It allowed the channel to reach out into other forms of programming.
In 1987, MTV started mixing in shows between the music videos, including their very first non-music show, Remote Control. In 1992, they essentially invented the modern reality TV series with The Real World. House of Style helped the channel branch out into fashion. The channel had notable hit cartoons with Beavis and Butthead and Daria in the ‘90s. And even in the new millennium, MTV found continued success, with reality-show staples such as The Osbournes, The Hills, and Jersey Shore.
Over nearly three-and-a-half decades, MTV has been able to constantly reinvent itself, and in doing so, it is able to woo a new generation of viewers every few years.
2) It allowed the channel to not grow old with its audience.
MTV made this a very conscious decision; it was not going to be a nostalgia channel. MTV succeeded at staying young, but the flip-side is that each generation of viewers has a completely different memory of the channel: For kids in the ‘80s, MTV meant music videos; for kids in the ‘90s, scripted programming and cartoons reigned; for kids in the ‘00s and beyond, reality TV was their MTV.
MTV starts with a clean slate every few years as it tries to rebuild its brand for a new generation. In that sense, they’ve found the Fountain of Youth… or if you’re feeling less charitable, MTV is like Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused: “I get older, they stay the same age.”
Luring a new fan-base (even while alienating the previous audience) isn’t, by itself, a deplorable practice. However, MTV also actively refuses to acknowledge its past. In the most obvious and damning example, current viewers of MTV often need to be told that the “M” in “MTV” stands for “music.”
This might sound like a trivial point, but music videos were the cornerstone on which MTV built its empire. The channel has gradually moved away from playing music videos; now MTV doesn’t run videos at all except during the insomnia hours of the early morning. MTV does not need to get gushingly sentimental, but the channel needs some kind of connection to its roots in order to stay vital; after all, can’t have a future if you don’t have a past.
However, the channel should not revert back to an all-music video format. Those that lament MTV’s current state often romanticize the “golden age” of MTV, when the channel played music videos non-stop. However, while that worked back in the early 1980s, it’s impossible for this version of the channel to get the same number of viewers today.
Don’t believe me? MTV actually tried this back in 1996, with the launch of M2. M2 was supposed to play only music videos like 1980s MTV did. However, just like its parent channel, M2 eventually succumbed to a largely music-video-free format. Rebranding itself just three years later as MTV2, most of its programming today is reruns of shows that originally ran on MTV prime. With two channels having now transitioned away from an all-music video format, the message was clear: No one wants to watch a TV channel that just plays music videos.
But this isn’t to say that we don’t want to watch music videos at all (because we do!) — it’s just that we can get music videos on YouTube instead. In an almost fatal mistake, MTV were slow to adapt to the internet age; as gatekeepers of the music video format in the ’80s and ’90s, MTV should have been the ones to invent the current format in which we consume music videos.
Had MTV invented YouTube, they would have been perfectly set up for the current digital age; instead, they’re stuck in that dreaded middle ground where they’re damned if they do (play music videos no one will watch) and damned if they don’t (not play music videos and be criticized).
The channel should definitely start playing more music videos, but this should be done in a way that is engaging and fun for its audience. TRL was a perfect example of this: the show revolved around music videos, but it required active participation to be successful. A whole generation grew up watching — and participating in — TRL, and it was one of MTV’s most beloved shows. Similarly, music videos make up the foundation for the MTV Video Music Awards, which is still an annual zeitgeist-celebrating-and-creating event (as Lady Gaga in a meat dress or Miley Cyrus twerking her way to infamy can tell you). MTV should, at the very least, bring back the Viewer’s Choice Award, in order to actively engage its audience at VMA-time.
Also, in order to stay relevant, MTV needs to transition away from merely catering to a new young audience, but also try to appeal to a large cross-section of its now multi-generational viewing alumni. It could do this with “Flashback Fridays,” where the channel plays old programs and music videos from decades past.
Alternately, MTV could a “This Day in Music” segment, where they run old MTV news clips before segueing into current music news. In any case, mixing some old with the new would be a win for the station. After all, nostalgia is a huge marketing tool, and MTV has this in spades. This is obviously a huge undertaking, but the channel could pull it off, because, for all its flaws, MTV has always been an innovative, irreverent, and intriguing channel.
MTV will continue to evolve. But like any lost 30-something who is still trying to figure it all out, they should embrace the journey they’ve been on, remember where they came from, and use the lessons from their past to build a better future.
MTV might not have wanted to celebrate their 34th birthday this year, but here’s hoping things will change enough in the channel’s future that there will be a desire, from both the public and the channel itself, to celebrate its 40th birthday.