MTV turns 40 on Sunday, and it hardly looks its age. Well, that’s because it hardly looks like, well, anything anymore. At least that’s the depressing state of the linear MTV channel, which in recent years has become 95% reruns of “Ridiculousness,” along with a handful of runs of 20-year-old movies (“Joe Dirt”) and limited first-run airings of legacy shows like “Teen Mom” and “Catfish: The TV Series.”
It’s been a cliché for years to complain about what happened to the music on MTV. (For the record, the cable network programs a grand total of one hour and 10 minutes of music programming a week — the 10-minute “Fresh Out Live” on Fridays, and the one-hour “Fresh Out Playlist” on Saturday mornings.) But the music question has been moot since the mid-2000s, when videos moved to YouTube and Vevo. The larger issue is, what happened to the programming, period, on MTV? It’s become a zombie channel, and for those of us still rooting for the brand, it’s a sad sight to see.
MTV isn’t the only neglected cable channel out there; as my colleague Kate Aurthur and I detailed in a Variety cover story last year. As the major conglomerates shift their attention to their streaming services, the legacy basic cable networks have become secondary priorities. In many cases, they now serve more as incubators for programming that will eventually find a broader audience on a streamer.
But because MTV meant so much to so many of us growing up, especially those of us in our 40s, the de-evolution of the channel stings extra hard. As recently as 10 years ago, MTV still felt like it had the pulse on pop culture, and that was long after it had moved on to embraced a younger millennial audience, leaving us Gen X-ers in the dust. (No hard feelings, MTV, we get it.)
Interestingly, MTV is a brand that ViacomCBS continues to embrace, even recently renaming its portfolio of cable brands — MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, Pop TV, CMT, VH1, TV Land and Logo — to MTV Entertainment Group. But again, it’s now less about those channels, and more about what MTV Entertainment Studios is producing as a whole, and especially for Paramount Plus.
MTV is alive and well — but not on MTV. MTV’s “The Real World Homecoming: New York” didn’t air on MTV, but rather on Paramount Plus. Under Sheila Nevins, MTV Documentary Films is continuing to grow into a top-notch label for docs, recently earning an Emmy nom for “76 Days” — but that film ran on Pluto TV, and later Paramount Plus, not on MTV. MTV Entertainment Studios landed four Emmy nominations, but not for MTV fare — it was via two for “Emily in Paris,” on Netflix, and two for “Reno 911,” on the late Quibi.
I can’t fault the idea behind this. ViacomCBS and the MTV Entertainment Group are moving the brand to where the audiences are. And in reviving classic MTV and VH1 titles like “MTV Unplugged” and “Behind the Music,” there’s logic in capitalizing on nostalgia to sell audiences on a Paramount Plus subscription. It worked with “The Real World Homecoming,” which I devoured on the streaming service (after it frustratingly never appeared on MTV itself).
But that brings us back to linear MTV. What to do with a legacy linear brand on autopilot? For its 40th anniversary, I say: Give MTV back to the 40-year-olds.
MTV is a brand that has always adapted to the times. And even now, that means a new MTV for the streaming generation. That’s fine. But young viewers don’t watch linear TV anymore. Hence the decision to program mostly “Ridiculousness” repeats on the channel as a bit of a nightlight. But are we really going to let MTV as a channel fade away, with a whimper like that?
Ironically, in 2021 MTV has once again morphed its brand toward the Gen X crowd (who’s watching those docs and “The Real World: Homecoming”) and millennials (“Emily in Paris”) than Gen Z, who aren’t… watching TV at all.
That’s why I’d say, ViacomCBS would have nothing to lose at this point in making MTV back into a lifestyle channel for the original MTV Generation. A generation that, yes, still subscribes to cable. And who still fondly remembers watching wall-to-wall Live Aid coverage on MTV. Jamming to acoustic Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged.” Playing along to the pop-culture trivia on “Remote Control.” Giggling to “Just Say Julie” Brown and “Beavis & Butt-head.” Watching Vanilla Ice on “The Week in Rock” trying to justify that sample he swiped from Queen and David Bowie. Getting schooled in hip-hop 101 on “Yo! MTV Raps.” And watching the most popular videos on “Dial MTV” and, later, “TRL.”
MTV as a music destination still exists: There are three MTV music video channels on Pluto TV. And the little-watched MTV Classic, available on cable and satellite providers including DirecTV, offers up a steady diet of old music videos. But there’s no personality or life to those channels, which are also run on autopilot. Take some of those elements, add in library fare and tease out some of the MTV exclusive content found on Paramount Plus, and you’ve got at least a channel that serves as a sales tool for why the brand still means something to multiple generations.
MTV is already embracing its roots, via all of those reboots being produced for Paramount Plus. Why not use linear MTV to promote that fact, and serve as a bit of a barker channel for those revivals, while also still making it a destination for the MTV Generation? Heading into middle age is tough enough. MTV, let’s do it together.