Has MTV decided to cancel its flagship award show, the Video Music Awards? Several unidentified sources, and a look at corporate changes at MTV’s parent company Viacom, show that this could be the case. Yes that’s right, if you were like the folks at the Hollywood Reporter Sunday night, and thought that something felt different than in years past, it might not be your imagination. Its sister publication Billboard has published leaked unofficial reports, stating that MTV plans to cancel the VMAs, which has served as a programming staple for the network since September of 1984.
So, if this is an unconfirmed leak, why does it have merit? The short answer is that audiences that “want their MTV” are getting dramatically smaller. Several reports made just this year have revealed that the once highly in demand network has hit a slump that has caused a ripple affect of great change within the entire TV division of the Viacom company. Along with last year’s VMA ratings dropping 18% from the prior year’s Miley/Thicke twerk fest, which also featured a 20-minute celebration of all things Justin Timberlake, there has also been an overall down turn of everything that was once called MTV Networks. In March, Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper reported that network ratings are down 5% from last year, and ad revenue is down 3%.
According to Variety, MTV’s parent, Viacom, has been taking steps to shrink its separate network groups, (BET, CMT, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, Spike TV, TV Land, VH1) into a more compact 2-network grouping. This naturally resulted in them laying off a reported 12 % of their over all staff in order to save $250 million, and appease investors. Sadly, a brief look at who was cut from the talent pool during this process says a lot about the network’s outlook for the future of its programming. And why canceling the VMAs could be a realistic possibility.
Of the many talented staffers cut from the MTV and/or Viacom team, many were high ranking, and often network veterans. One of the biggest names on that list was Dave Sirulnick. In addition to many other illustrious titles at the network during his 28-year tenure, Sirulnick was the executive producer for the MTV Video Music Awards.
Along with series developers like Tony DiBari, Sirulnick was essentially responsible for giving the pop music identity to the channel for quite some time. Since coming over to MTV from CNN in 1987, he produced staple music focused feature shows like “Week in Rock”, “Total Request Live”, the Wanna Be A VJ contests, and the “MTV Icon” special series, which made the MTV brand a true source for music television for multiple generations. As times and music trends changed, he continued to do so with other more recent music feature examples like Nicki Minaj: My Time Again (2015), Nine Days and Nights of Ed Sheeran (2014), and Miley: The Movement (2013).
We love all of these features, both past and present, and view them as layered, intelligent pieces of work that reflect the culture of mainstream popular music. No matter how good they were though, they apparently weren’t good enough business for Viacom.
Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman was quoted telling investors, “some of the programming we acquired years ago just doesn’t work anymore.”
As cold as these changes may seem to us music loving onlookers, this year’s staggeringly low VMA ratings show that Mr. Dauman may have a point. Something is a clear miss. As this article is being written, the web is exploding with reports about the telecast’s poor performance, even though it was simulcast across 9 different Viacom networks.
Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper argues that part of the network’s overall downturn is because shows like Teen Mom and Ridiculousness pull in fractions compared to similar past hits Jackass and Jersey Shore, because Viacom hasn’t adjusted it’s distribution approach to accommodate the fact that their core demo is watching less and less live TV (example, the majority of Viacom’s properties were withheld from HULU despite fantastic performance on the platform until October 2014). Because of its long-standing symbiotic relationship within the economy of big music’s big business, it wouldn’t be a surprise if analysts later determine that the lagging VMA’s were ultimately the result of a miss step with the music loving demo too. Their major label music partners had a historically infamous resistance against many aspects of digital media. As chronicled in many forms of in-depth analysis like that of Knopper’s own book, Appetite For Self-Destruction: The Crash of The Record Industry In The Digital Age, the music biz’s blind eye created a hole in the market that the opportunistic tech visionary Steve Jobs took complete advantage of. This resulted in Job’s Apple largely dictating music’s digital retail structure, creating the purchasing habits of a generation.
Some could argue that despite having conglomerated resources in the billions at the height of music commercialism in the year 2000, which could have funded all the research and development necessary to put Viacom and the MTV brand at the forefront of music related digital broadcasting, a similar resistance created the media landscape holes that led to the creation of VEVO (founded in 2009) and Apple Music (founded in June, 2015). This arguably forced the network formally known as “Music Television”, to increasingly lean on reality and scripted programming so much that it made the brand irrelevant to modern music consumers, because Apple once again took the reigns. Perhaps, at least when it comes to the 2015 VMAs, the programming “doesn’t work” because many simply don’t “want their MTV” anymore.