Today, MTV announced that the premium cable channel VH1 Classic will be rebranded as MTV Classic. The station will shift from airing programming such as classic rock music videos and R.E.M. documentaries to old MTV shows like Daria, Jackass and MTV Cribs. This is another example of how MTV is being murdered by its parent company Viacom.
It’s clear, obviously, that MTV is hoping to regain traction among millennials, the last batch of people who have any attachment to MTV, give-or-take the slightly younger adults who were teenagers in the regrettable Teen Mom era. In its press release announcing MTV Classic, the network said it will have a “special focus on the 1990s and early 2000s,” and will specifically air “‘from the vault’ programming blocks Mondays through Thursdays from 10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.”
MTV is hoping waves of millennials will come home from work, smoke weed, and watch episodes of Pimp My Ride. It’s not the worst idea in the world, except that, as we all know, fewer and fewer millennials choose to pay for cable television. Something like 1 in 4 millennials don’t have cable (based on a 2015 Nielsen study), and that feels like a low estimate based on the scientific measure of “people I talk to at bars.” The numbers for premium cable have to be drastically lower. I happen to be in the group of millennials who do pay almost $100 per month for cable (I like sports), and I don’t get VH1 Classic, which I just had to look up on an online channel guide because I’ve never encountered or considered its existence.
Viacom, which also owns VH1, has fought the changing nature of entertainment tooth-and-nail for years. Instead of recognizing the inevitable power of YouTube, Viacom carried out litigation against it for seven years. MTV’s YouTube channel is full of trailers and exclusive clips, but very little if any full episodes of television (which are up via bootleggers) or original scripted content. The only MTV programming available on Netflix is one season of its Scream remake and one season of something called The Shannara Chronicles. The MTV app on Apple TV or Roku allows entry to a deep archive of MTV shows—if you already subscribe to cable.
Viacom is scared of Netflix, as it should be. Netflix is the boa constrictor wrapped around the cable television industry, slowly crushing it to death. Near the end of last year, Viacom entered into an expanded partnership with Hulu, which offers a bunch of old MTV shows. This is fine. Maybe Viacom is getting a good deal. The financials are secret so there’s no way for us to know, and anyway I’m not sure even the people in TV know what’s a good deal right now and what isn’t.
Networks that have Valuable Millennial Nostalgia to license off have only a few places to sell to (while simultaneously being pillaged by BuzzFeed). They may not particularly like those places. They may not have much leverage in negotiations. But, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon—these are pretty much the options. There’s no Crackle coming to save their intellectual property, and nobody is going to watch MTV Classic.
At some point in the future, every series ever aired by MTV will be accessible in one central location. Why not now? If I ran Viacom (and I don’t, lol) I would choose to meet this reality head on. MTV, at this point, should treat itself as an auction house. It has valuable artifacts such as Jersey Shore. If it keeps those artifacts for itself, it will not make enough money to survive, and they will sink to the bottom of the sea. Instead it must sell (well, license) its artifacts to the highest bidders. Soon if not right this very second there will be more money to be made this way than there is to be made displaying those artifacts on channel, uh, just a second here... 186.