MTV used to stand for music television. It was the premier venue for the debut of the phenomenon which is the music video, the setting that made iconic ’80s videos from The Buggles, Peter Gabriel, and Michael Jackson stand out as poignant moments in music history. Later, it was the embodiment of ’90s pop culture distilled, bottled, and broadcasted to millions of scrunchie-clad teens. In recent years however, the “music” element of the MTV equation has begun to take a backseat to a gamut of reality programs spanning hard-hitting topics, such as unplanned teenage pregnancy, online dating, and duck phones. While aging demographics may mourn this transition as tragic, the younger generation – the audience MTV has almost always exclusively targeted – are losing interest, and losing interest fast.
MTV has experienced a steady decline in ratings over the past decade, the result of what many perceive as a failure to appeal to its target demographic, namely teenagers and college students with their fingers on the pulse of pop-culture and social media. Amidst mass lay-offs of editorial staff and failed pilots (Siesta Key anyone?) and in an effort to regain some of its previous cult following, MTV has decided to move forward with a full-on reinvention of the network. As so often is the case, the network hopes to move forward by looking back—MTV goes retro.
Many of the changes MTV hopes to enact harken back to its glory days in the late ’90s and the new millennium. Most dramatic of these changes is the reinstatement of MTV staple, Total Request Live, or TRL. If that sentence didn’t give you déjà vu, I don’t know what will. That’s right, you can now fully relive the ritual of waking up steeped in anticipation to watch Carson Daly count down Top Ten music videos and talk to Renaissance individuals, such as Hanson, Britney Spears, and the members of Korn.
Although returning to what was once MTV’s most popular program makes sense operating under the logic of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” the decisive move made by network president Chris McCarthy should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, it is the older generation, those of us currently struggling in entry-level jobs, grappling with student loan debt, or transitioning into marriage and family who will, in the end, be seduced by the promised nostalgia of TRL in the new age. While this is all well and good insofar as drumming up interest, I personally remain unconvinced that it will result in a ratings boost amongst MTV’s target demographic, who having never experienced the show first hand will not be drawn to it for purely sentimental reasons. Only time will tell if the move proves to be a lucrative one or an expensive if misguided moment of entertainment for disenfranchised nineties kids.