MTV and the Issues with Niche Branding on Linear Television

MTV first hit the airwaves in 1981, and like ESPN and CNN, brought a revolution to cable television. The networks CBS, ABC, and NBC provide a catch-all service where consumers can find entertainment, sports, and news. With cable, individual channels could devote entire schedules to niche specific programming. And just like ESPN and CNN, no one knew if it would succeed. Could a 24-hour music video channel survive?

It did, and the format remained unchanged for the first five years of the channel, until executives began to express concerns of the longevity of only airing music videos. Much like CNN and ESPN, there aren’t 24-hour sports or news events happening all the time, so channels have to improvise with other types of shows. The issue with MTV's 24-hour music video format was if a viewer channel surfs and doesn’t like the current song on the air, they aren’t likely to stick around when there’s a lineup of others channels available. Should they find another show, it'll be at least another half hour until they maybe come back. Same with a world premiere video, the viewer stays for three minutes and is likely to leave if they don't like the next song, and that’s not good for advertising revenue.

So, the channel began to introduce music-themed programming: content to maintain the viewer for longer than three minutes. The channel introduced MTV News, as well as other music discussion shows. But then in 1987 Remote Control premiered, a pop culture trivia game show where the final round involved identifying music videos. Not a show centered around music, but featuring music in some fashion. As the channel grew, more shows premiered that blurred the lines of music programming. Some examples throughout the years: In 1993, Beavis and Butthead was a show about two dim teenagers, and in-between episodes, they critique music videos. In 2001, Jackass was a stunt show featuring music during the scenes. In 2009, Jersey Shore was a reality show featuring music between scenes. New episodes of Jersey Shore to this day still feature real songs on the show, a move that undoubtedly costs MTV a good amount of money.

Although MTV no longer officially stands for Music Television, the channel still takes great lengths to include music in some way in its programs and branding. The channel still hosts the Video Music Awards, invests in music programming like Fresh Out Live and TRL, and maintains its MTV News division through social networks. Yet what has proven to be more successful for the channel were the shows that weren't rooted in music. Beavis and Butthead and Jackass have created numerous spinoffs and feature films, and so many MTV shows have defined the generation. MTV had the young audience, and the executives knew how to target them. You may not like what MTV airs, but if no one watched those shows, they wouldn't be on the air.

This leads into some of the criticism of MTV. Every so often I'll see posts online about how bad MTV is, and that they should go back to music videos. If viewers still watched music videos on television in mass quantities, MTV would've never changed. Anytime someone complains about MTV, I like to redirect them to MTV Classic, a 24-hour music video channel that holds the distinction of being one of, if not the lowest rated entertainment channel on cable. Meanwhile Teen Mom and Jersey Shore can still pull in almost a million viewers while targeting the young demographic that isn't known for watching linear cable television, which is a big deal.

Niche branding issues aren't exclusive to MTV, just take a look at MTV's sibling channel CMT. They too found a 24-hour music channel to be too limited and air sitcoms and comedy movies, often times with no relation to country music or culture. However, the channel still devotes time in their schedule and resources to developing country music programming to maintain the first letter of their name, although not on the schedule as often as the syndicated shows and movies. The role of linear television, specifically cable channels has drastically changed, and today mirrors what G4 went through over a decade ago. 

G4 started in 2002 as channel centered around video games, featuring video game news and tips, raw gameplay, and video game competition, all in a package designed for the MTV demographic. After two years on the air, the channel was only received in 15,000,000 homes, far short of the 40,000,000 needed to attract valuable advertisers, and that 15,000,000 seemed to be the most G4 could convince cable providers to carry the channel. Growing impatient of their expensive investment, in 2004 G4's owner Comcast bought TechTV, a channel with similar niche programming and available in over 40,000,000 homes, and merged the two channels. For a short time, the channel operated with a mix of G4 and TechTV shows, then less than a year later, cancelled the bulk of video game and tech shows on the schedule due to low ratings. Simultaneously, G4 switched to a male-oriented general entertainment format. 

Following in Spike's footsteps, G4's overall schedule was filled with general entertainment shows and movies, and marketed itself as the destination for the young adult male with a digital lifestyle. The two shows that maintained the geek culture brand were X-Play, a video game news, review, and comedic show, and Attack of the Show, a variety program with sketch comedy, pop culture news, interviews, and tech reviews based on The Screen Savers, both shows from TechTV. G4 also ran a website with focusing on video games and tech news and reviews, but diehard G4 fans expressed issue with the non-tech and video game linear shows on the G4 forum and social networks, much like MTV. 

G4's television channel has since shut down, but G4 staff have gone public that the marathons of Cops episodes brought in the viewership and ad revenue that could allow G4 to produce X-Play and Attack of the Show on linear and G4TV.com's tech and video game website and podcasts. The same can be said for many of the niche channels on cable: they have had to add more general content in order to produce the niche shows that define their brands, like CMT airing sitcoms so they can produce country music shows. 

Unfortunately, the future of linear channels will be in marathons of shows and movies in order to attract a mass audience and occasional original shows to fulfill the channel's brand. Ad revenues for linear, although still the main source of revenue, are decreasing, and as such, channels don't have the budget to gamble on more shows. However, these same channels will exist on streaming services as brands or categories for content. ViacomCBS is using this strategy with Pluto TV and CBS All Access, soon to be Paramount+, as well as Comcast's Peacock and WarnerMedia's HBO Max. Because these services house a wide variety of content, they can use the niche brands to offer content that will stay true to its niche. G4 will see a revival in 2021 as a streaming portal for video game and tech content, and Paramount+ will feature music-oriented programming under the MTV brand.

It is unknown if the long-term future of linear will be in more generalization, or more niche content to advertise its brand on the streaming service it runs on. One thing is for sure that the original MTV, G4 and other niche channels' formats were ahead of their times. For a linear television service to succeed, it needs to reach a mass audience, and if it can't, it has to branch out to other forms of content in order to keep the lights on. Entire services exist online to replace these linear television channels, but these channels have a history in the popular culture and are extremely valuable to streaming services. Now niche channels like MTV can exist in Paramount+ as a destination for the reality shows today's audience has come to know, as well as music programming that might not have worked on linear. G4 as a streaming service can maintain its focus on video games without the need to rebrand into other categories. These brands may not work on linear, but on streaming their brand can thrive.

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