MTV VMAs Snapchat
Courtesy of MTV

Viacom’s MTV is still a TV property, with the bulk of its revenue still anchored in traditional television distribution. But the youth-skewing brand has been forced to spray its content broadly across multiple digital platforms — where much of its target audience is spending their time instead of watching TV.

For its flagship 2016 Video Music Awards, MTV is touting the biggest digital reach ever in the awards show’s history. Overall, this year’s VMAs served more than 173 million video streams from Sunday, Aug. 28, through Tuesday, Aug. 30, up 313% from last year.

That included a booming presence on Snapchat, the social dynamo with 150 million users: MTV’s Live Story feed on Snapchat for the VMAs reached nearly 21 million unduplicated global unique viewers, up 75% versus 12 million in 2015. The network’s content on Snapchat covered the show itself — which featured performances by Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears and other artists — as well as behind-the-scenes action leading up to it. For MTV’s Snapchat account, VMA-related content (which was live for 24 hours from Aug. 28-29) delivered 30.5 million total video views, versus 25 million last year.

However, on linear television, the 2016 VMAs were down a whopping 34% from last year, drawing 6.5 million total viewers across the 11-network live simulcast (MTV, MTV2, MTV Classic, VH1, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land, BET, CMT, Centric and Logo).

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That suggests that more than three times as many Snapchat users saw VMAs content than people who watched on TV. The caveat is that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison: Nielsen ratings are a measure of the average number of viewers over the duration of a broadcast, versus the total number of unique viewers who tuned in. Moreover, Snapchat views last mere seconds so a “view” on social platforms isn’t the same as what is consumed by the TV audience.

MTV president Sean Atkins acknowledged that both the network and its advertisers would have liked to have seen higher TV viewing numbers. But he dismissed the notion that the aggressive digital push behind the VMAs contributed to the erosion of the television audience.

“If you didn’t do all the digital stuff would they come back to linear? I don’t think so,” he said. “In a world of infinite options, you don’t solve that by pretending those options don’t exist.”

MTV sells advertising packages as multiplatform packages that guarantee performance using a hybrid of metrics across platforms. On Snapchat, advertisers included Wrigley’s Orbit, Trojan, Taco Bell and antismoking campaign Truth, which also were sponsors of the VMAs across broadcast and other digital platforms. “Our advertisers pay us to be where the audience is,” Atkins said. “They know that it’s an ecosystem that has to feed itself. The digital side doesn’t work without the linear (TV) side.”

All told, this year’s VMAs have generated over 201 million views across multiple networks and platforms, which is up 173% vs. the comparable period a year ago. That spanned Viacom’s TV networks (on an average per-minute audience basis), MTV Digital own properties, and MTV’s distribution on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. Note that only pay-TV customers could watch the full awards show (either on TV or via MTV’s authenticated online services).

But not all those views deliver the same value to advertisers, and it seems likely that the boom in digital viewing isn’t offsetting drops on the TV side, at least not yet.

“The challenge we have ultimately is there’s no uniform metric across every single platform that equalizes all of this,” Atkins said. “Clearly from the buzz and social impact perception of it, it feels bigger.” According to MTV, the 2016 VMAs comprised 90% of all TV-related social-media discussions on Sunday, while “#VMAs” was the top global trending hashtag on Twitter for 13 hours on the day of show.

The data from the VMAs tells “the continuing story about how our audience is multiplatform – it’s continuing to deliver on these platforms to meet our audience where they are,” said Atkins, who joined MTV a year ago after heading Discovery Communications’ digital-media biz.

Atkins insisted the VMAs as a franchise is not “in economic danger,” and said MTV is compelled to adapt to shifting audience consumption patterns. “We, like any business, track the financials across platforms — and you harvest some because they’re in early stages of development,” he said.

Still, Atkins noted the strangeness of observing viewers tuning in to the VMAs entirely on social to the exclusion of TV. “I was in the arena watching on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat – and people were saying, ‘I’m enjoying watching the VMAs on my feed,'” Atkins said.

Pictured above: Images from MTV’s Live Story on Snapchat for the 2016 VMAs

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