MTV prospered for decades because it looked like, what a network might look like, if a 16-year-old were doing the programming. But now the music channel is trying to make its way in a multidevice, multiplatform, multichannel world, most of which is being programmed by a 16-year-old.
The velocity of change has left MTV occasionally looking as if were being programmed by an 83-year-old -- namely Sumner M. Redstone, the chairman of Viacom, which owns MTV. The network, itself a stately 25 years old, has suffered a decline in ratings and cultural cachet.
Last week, MTV Networks, an umbrella which includes MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, laid off 250 employees, including some executives. The idea was to trim bodies in the television ranks and ramp up hiring on the Internet side of the business, investing the savings to make sure that its various channels don't end up like the dad in the basement at the teen party.
As a brand, MTV has been beyond durable, managing to reinvent itself continuously and in doing so, presenting a fast-moving target that left many would-be rivals in its wake. Shows like MTV's "Real World" deserve much of the credit, or blame, for demonstrating that reality can make for compelling viewing.
But finding the edge was simpler before competition for its core demographic started coming from all fronts, from video games and social-networking Web sites to amateur clips on YouTube. And consumers can use the Web to come up with their own reality narratives -- the current transformation of Britney Spears from pop superstar to bald alien is pretty tough for anyone to compete with.
Being the coolest thing on television is a feat, but not one with a lot of future when most of the coolest things no longer live there.
MTV has been madly programming screens of all sizes and looking to engage consumers on whatever device they choose, but it has been slow going. Rising above the clutter was a lot easier when we were all staring into the same campfire.
"It's true that our viewers are telling us that they want an experience beyond linear television," said Christina Norman, MTV's president. "MTV has a history of surrounding the consumer with both long-form and interstitial content, and I think we can deliver on a two-way relationship with our audience."
She suggested that there were few media brands better-suited to coming up with content for cell phones and added that the virtual communities around shows like "Laguna Beach" have created opportunities for both viewers and advertisers.
The so-called music channel left music behind as a sole platform some time ago, instead relying on reality and lifestyle shows to draw in young audiences. But it nonetheless remains in the business of zeitgeist.
In a sense, the change in the musical ecosystem reflects broader challenges. Not that long ago, a band fought its way to a major label contract, benefited from commercial radio play and then, finally, a video on MTV. But this system has been disrupted by entertainment's new iterations, and now most bands no longer ride a vertical axis to the top. There are various workarounds to the popular music monolith -- online file-sharing, viral marketing, niche sites and social networks help bands market their music from one person to another.
It is all well and good that OK Go, the band-as-music-video-sensation, chose to premiere its video "Do What You Want" on "Total Request Live," MTV's once-dominant afternoon show, but it is worth remembering that OK Go emerged to begin with from YouTube, where its goofy treadmill video became a cult classic.
In a sense, MTV, which once decided what was worthy, is responding to a more powerful consumer algorithm. (Norman points out that OK Go did not start selling a significant amount of music until the band began appearing on MTV.)
The disintegration of mass has made for difficult times at MTV Networks, although there are bright spots. VH1 continues to hum with a heady mix of "celeb reality" like "Flavor of Love" and shows like "Best Week Ever" that annotate the present with the ease of a well-written blog. VH1 does not bear MTV's burden of serving as a generational touchstone, so it can program whatever happens to be working.
The organizational changes at the network signal that even MTV can learn some best practices from other members of the corporate family. Marketers I spoke to said that it was the once-dowdy VH1 that seemed to have the fresher ideas. And Comedy Central, which lacks both the legacy and the baggage that MTV carries, is very much of the moment, led by a skeptic-in-chief, Jon Stewart.
"MTV has come in and out of vogue, like most cutting-edge brands," said Tim Spengler, chief activation officer of Initiative, a media buying firm. "But they have done a great job of being in vogue more often than not. The changes that they announced seem a lot more like the redeploying of assets to digital platforms that are growing faster."
MTV is hardly the only media company in a wrestling match with a fast-advancing future. NBC and Disney both underwent painful changes, although it seemed like there was a bit more strategy to go along with the displacement.
MTV Networks brought in Michael J. Wolf, the former McKinsey consultant, to lead it to that happy new place, but he lasted little more than a year as president, in part because the formerly cutting-edge outfit was hidebound enough to reject the attempted transplant of outside ideas.
In general, Viacom has been attempting to dance to the fickle tune of Wall Street, first bifurcating into two businesses as a way of juicing the stock, and then, when that did not work, dumping much-beloved executive Tom Freston. This worked a little, although Viacom's stock closed Friday at $40.53, off more than $3 from its presplit price.
Like all publicly traded media companies, Viacom faces the perplexing math of repositioning for a disrupted future while trying to meet current shareholder demands for growth.
Solving the multiplatform math will take a long-term slog and will not help meet Redstone's demand for high margins in the short run. Instead, the investment in Internet is being financed in part by the cutbacks that were announced last week.
One example of how MTV has obviously lost a step is the Video Music Awards, an alternative to the Grammys that was once a big pop culture moment and is now an artistic and a ratings flop.
The show was down 30 % in the 18-49 demographic last year, and the company announced last month that Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor," will bring some reality magic to its movie awards show.
Burnett has had his share of successes, but the idea that MTV would have to turn to an outsider to bring some sizzle to one of its signature events suggests that its stranglehold on youth consciousness is not what it once was.
Even the most robust media brands can come and go. Dennis Publishing, which produced Maxim and Stuff, the so-called lad magazines that were once hugely popular, announced last week that it was looking for a buyer.
MTV is hardly a fad, but some cycles are more serious than others. It is a change in habits -- consumers pulling in what they want as opposed to consuming what is pushed toward them -- that makes the way forward more difficult to discern.
"MTV has a lot of programming development that sounds interesting," said Chris Boothe, president of Starcom USA, an advertising agency. "They have a brand that is still very viable in the market" and have been trying to make the most of it with acquisitions like iFilm, a Web video site, and Xfire, a gaming site, Boothe said.
Of course, clanging the death knell on MTV has been a hobby for media observers as long as the music channel has existed, but when the smoke cleared, those three letters were still there.
"I think that something that has managed to win for 25 years will continue to do so, " said Spengler. "If they just had five years behind them, that would be different, because the challenges they face are ferocious. But they have been finding a way to win for a lot longer than that."