MTV: Culturally Dead?

The question about MTV used to be whether it was good or bad for the industry. Now, it’s whether the channel means squat anymore.

As MTV reaches its 25th anniversary, the stories about it break down into two types: celebrations of its culture-shaking milestones and damning of its irrelevance today in a Myspace/YouTube world. A select few try to glean what’s significant about how the channel has changed and what this means for pop culture in general. As it turns out, even most detractors will have to admit, it means a lot.

Articles such this one from Forbes chides the network for not being what it once was: Is MTV Aging Well? Still, they see MTV as trying to keep up with the online competitors that are stealing thunder from them.

Hank Stuever Washington Post article 25 Years Down the Tube is much more enlightened as he struggles to define what’s made MTV important and why he finds it a guilty pleasure nowadays and something of a reflection of the pop culture audience.

What fascinates me about MTV is what Stuever admires about it- its Peter Pan quality. It wisely doesn’t act like it’s 1981 (or 1991 or 2001) anymore, striving to not just keep up with pop culture but also trying to bend it to its will. Like FM radio, MTV had found that there’s more audience to grab with having programs that try to engage the audience directly, be it talk radio or ‘reality’ shows.

Also, for all the scribes that moan and complain that the channel isn’t playing music videos any more, that had to change too. One of the early complaints about the station was that they were playing the same videos all the time. One reason was because there weren’t a lot of videos out there. Once the idea caught on and they had labels and artists flooding them with videos, it still meant that MTV was just selecting from what they were given, much like a radio station selects songs for its programs. Ultimately, any stations or channel can do the same thing so what is it that’s gonna set you apart from the rest? A: original programming. It was inevitable as other channels (i.e. Fuse) indeed picked up on the idea of a music video channel and started to run with it.

And while the question about MTV used to be whether it was good or bad for the industry (and before you answer, remember that the labels were willing participants in its rise) but whether the channel means squat anymore. As the Forbes article notes, it helped make Jessica Simpson a star (now there’s something to be proud of) but how often has that happened there lately?

MTV is a strange position now of trying to play catch-up with pop culture and as it realizes, it’s not just programming that’s going to get it there but also the platform/medium. No matter how much they point to their websites, MTV is still about TV and it will be interesting to see if a channel that depends so much on being at the forefront of youth culture can remain there as such if it’s yoked to ‘old’ media.