When the Music Stops

By on Feb 11, 2010 in Tinseltown | 5 comments

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For a recent homework assignment, our professor wanted us to watch three consecutive hours of television on any cable channel. Of course I procrastinated and had to pick from the offerings on the last possible day. I chose to watch the midday Wednesday MTV lineup, which were amusing if not insipid episodes of Disaster Date and True Life. When it came time to analyze the programming, I ruminated on MTV’s current situation.

But first, here’s a little state-of-the-network address. The channel is operated by MTV Networks, which, along with BET Networks, is a part of Viacom. MTV Networks, in turn, also owns MTV2, mtvU, MTV Tr3s, VH1, VH1 Classic, VH1 Soul, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Noggin, The N, Comedy Central, TV Land, and Spike TV. The Viacom website boasts that the singular channel MTV reaches 508 million households across a variety of platforms and that the network has been named the World’s Most Valuable Media Brand for eight consecutive years by BusinessWeek. Its targeted demographic is men and women from ages 12 to 34. And the actual demographic is pretty spot-on: Nielsen Media Research reports that by the third quarter of 2008, the median age was 21.1 and MTV had been the top-rated 24 hour ad-supported cable network among viewers 12 to 24 years old for 46 consecutive quarters. Also, new shows are becoming hits for the channel. As the Associated Press reports, “Jersey Shore, a show about hot-tubbing housemates living in the New Jersey shore shown on Viacom’s MTV, has become the top prime-time show for viewers in the 12 to 34 age group on Thursdays. Teen Mom, a reality show about the travails of single moms, is now the number one prime-time show on Tuesday nights for the 12 to 24 age group.” In fact, the finale of Jersey Shore attracted 4.8 million viewers, almost triple the number who tuned into the premiere.

But the network is in a bit of an identity crisis. It’s no longer music television. And even MTV acknowledges that: as of February 8, the logo no longer includes the words “Music Television.” Looking now at its rosters of shows, the only one I recognize as music-centric is MTV Unplugged. The rest, for the most part, are reality shows with various extents of scripted-ness.

But maybe with all the coverage of music on the Internet (e.g. music, artist interviews, and videos), MTV doesn’t need to focus on music like it has in the past. Maybe featuring up-and-coming bands in its shows is enough now. (To their credit, the network always shows soundtrack information on-screen, which is something I haven’t seen any other network do.)

MTV is often on in my “mod” (Hampshire speak for “apartment”), so I’ve seen a sampling of the lineup. Some shows seem like vacuous entertainment with no particular style or substance (e.g. The Hills). And some are intriguingly meaningful and worthwhile to watch, like MADE and The Buried Life, both of which revolve around transformation and self-empowerment as a result of determination and persistence. So yes, with all these new reality and documentary shows, MTV may be trying to figure out what it is in this decade. But it’s still often on in my apartment, and it’s still a cultural touchstone of my generation.

Note: I cannot tell a lie. Most of this post was repurposed from the paper I wrote for the assignment. But I wanted to share my thoughts nonetheless, so let’s just say I put that paper “into syndication.”