It's been five years since MTV canceled "Total Request Live," its afternoon music mainstay. VJs have been replaced by the teen moms and fist pumpers of hit reality shows. Music videos are confined to the wee hours, MTV's digital platforms or sibling networks like MTV Jams, MTV Hits and VH1 Classic.
But the seeds of MTV's shift away from music videos were planted earlier than many people realize -- perhaps as soon as it focused on reaching young people. Now Sean "Diddy" Combs is introducing a music network called Revolt. Is history about to repeat itself?
"The novelty of playing music videos in rotation probably wore off after that first year," said Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music & Logo Group. "If you look anything like you did five years ago, especially if you are targeting a younger demographic, you are in trouble."
That's why MTV began offsetting its music videos with programming like the news show "The Week in Rock" and music-centric game show "Remote Control." Eventually viewers tuning into MTV encountered reality shows "Real World" and "Road Rules" -- the ancestors of "The Osbournes," "The Hills" and, most recently, "Jersey Shore," all of which pulled in ratings far exceeding those for any block of videos.
So MTV chose to incorporate music in other ways, using its reality and scripted series to highlight new songs. It argues that it's still putting fans and performers together in powerful ways, videos or no. "I would argue that hearing 30 seconds of a song in "Teen Wolf' might have more impact," Mr. Toffler said.
Mr. Combs wouldn't agree. With Revolt, which launches next month, he is aiming to reinvent the music-TV genre for a new generation. The TV network will have music news and music-related programming, but it's meant to be a piece of a larger ecosystem, one that seamlessly connects digital platforms and creates a live social experience.
"The way you go to CNN for breaking news or ESPN for sports -- in six months to a year, we want Revolt to be that for music," said Andy Schuon, co-founder of Revolt. "There's so many ways to aggregate and curate digitally but none of that is happening on linear TV in a new and exciting way."
Messrs. Combs, Schuon and others who are busy pitching Revolt to advertisers are positioning the network as a draw for marketers in search of elusive millennial viewers.
Experts say marketers are still interested in music TV. "When they are looking to reach the young people 18 into late 20s both male and female, brands look to explore music platforms," said Brent Poer, president, SMG LiquidThread North America, part of Starcom MediaVest. "It's one of the through-lines and connectivity points for the age group no matter the ethnicity, geography or gender."
John Lack, an MTV founder who is now chief partner at brand-strategy firm Firemedia, said music sales could see a bump from a newcomer like Revolt. "There's so much content out there for you to watch on demand and compile into playlists, but curation is still needed to sell music," Mr. Lack said. But that's a different question than whether Revolt will benefit from music videos, where Mr. Lack suggested the economics are uncertain.
Madison Square Garden Co., meanwhile, has struggled to find a footing for its music-TV channel, Fuse, and said earlier this month that it had hired JP Morgan to explore strategic alternatives, including a sale. The company shifted Fuse last year to focus more on music news and to incorporate reality series, but ratings have continued to flail. The network, which is in 73 million households, averages just 55,000 total viewers in prime time.
MTV's offshoots don't fare much better, with MTV2 averaging about 161,000 viewers in prime time and VH1 Classic watched by just 39,000 viewers.
Still, there's an interest from the advertising community for music programming that resonates with a younger audience. So media buyers are willing to give Revolt time to make mistakes and find its voice.
"No one sees them as being a ratings powerhouse," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of strategic intelligence at Publicis Groupe's SMGx. "Small ratings will be accepted if it reaches an audience that's hard to reach: a younger audience that hasn't been watching traditional TV."
Revolt CEO Keith Clinkscales said music can play an important role on TV. "I don't think we will ever get back to a point where people run home to watch the premiere of "Thriller' video on TV," Mr. Clinkscales said. "But there are different types of moments we can create. We want to become part of the viral process. You can still fill a 24-hour network with music."
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CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article quoted Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks Music & Logo Group, as saying the "glory days" of frequent music videos probably wore off after MTV's first year. He actually said the "novelty" probably wore off that soon.
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