It was the early-1980s, music videos had emerged at the intersection of technology and popular culture. Music videos were all the rage, and MTV was the hippest cable-TV channel on the planet.
But nowadays, MTV is just one of many cable-TV and online channels competing for the eyes and ears of young people. Viacom's flagship network is no longer a cutting-edge source for music or entertainment. Viewership, especially among the 20-and-30-year-old Millennials that marketers covet, has been on a steep and steady decline.
"MTV seems to have lost its allure," said Jaleesa Jones, 21, a communication studies major at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. "TV is less popular now because we have so many other outlets to choose from, like Netflix (NFLX), Hulu and HBO Go."
MTV's audience has been shrinking just as mobile viewing by Millennials has accelerated the move by marketers to spread more of their money on an assortment of Internet-based video channels. In 2013, an average of 542,000 persons ages 18-49 tuned in to MTV during prime-time hours, according to Nielsen. In 2014, that number dropped to 497,000 persons, and so far in 2015, it sits at 361,000 -- a 34% decline rom just two years ago, Nielsen data shows.
MTV's declining audience presents a major problem for Viacom, which uses the network to market its other youthful networks including, Spike, Comedy Channel and VH1. No wonder that Viacom is reeling, its stock has lost 18% over the past 12 months.
Earlier this week, Viacom said it would take a $785 million charge on a group of acquired re-runs including CSI, Entourage, and Community, all of which ran at one time on MTV. Stung by declining ad revenue, Viacom is laying off as many as 400 employees, part of a sweeping restructuring plan intended to save the company close to $350 million a year.
The network's stumbling may have been inevitable, tastes change and newer brands tend to have greater appeal to younger audiences. MTV's problems have been complicated by questions as to whether Nielsen is accurately measuring viewing on mobile devices, a point that CEO Philippe Dauman has made into something of a personal campaign.
"There's a tendency with Millennials to avoid establishing a relationship with a cable provider, at all costs," Joseph Abruzzo, chief exploration officer at Havas Media North America, said in a phone interview from New York. "Millennials aren't going to pay for shows they won't watch, and everything they want nowadays can be found online."
That translates into less time watching linear television and more time on sites such as Google's (GOOG) YouTube, Netflix, Facebook and VEVO, among many others. To win over Millennials, networks must offer programming that is at once edgy and well-produced. Reality television no longer draws. Some of the most-talked-about shows on Twitter include The Walking Dead on the AMC Networks (AMCX), Game of Thrones on Time Warner's (TWX) HBO, Pretty Little Liars on Disney's (DIS) ABC Family, and American Horror Story on 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) FX network.
"Traditional media must rethink their strategies in order to stay competitive," Michelle Lynn, chief insights officer of Dentsu Aegis Network Americas, said in a phone interview. "Everything is competing for your time today, and with mobile you can tap into anything...wherever and whenever."
MTV's programming has struggled to capture Millennial audiences. Shows like Catfish, Broke A$$ Game Show, Awkward and Eye Candy are criticized for offering characters and plot lines that are juvenile, trashy or just plain vulgar.
"People stay glued to the TV for Scandal or Empire," said the UNC student Jones, referencing shows on ABC and Fox. But what does MTV really have to offer these days? The channel hasn't had a major hit since Jersey Shore -- and hardly."
Here are five shows Millennials are watching instead of MTV: