Can MTV News spur an MTV comeback?

“I want my MTV” may have been true back in the 1980s, but youth today have shown they want nothing to do with the network or its parent company Viacom. And the media giant wants to turn that around.

MTV got an average of 439,000 primetime viewers between 18 and 49 in the third quarter of last year, according to Nielsen. At 100,00 primetime viewers, its teen audience was even lower. Both those numbers marked double-digit declines compared to the year before. At the same time, MTV’s digital footprint hasn’t picked up the slack. It pulled in 25 million unique visitors to in January, flat compared to the same time in 2015. In comparison, BuzzFeed gets around 80 million monthly unique visitors, and Snapchat has 100 million daily active users.

The effect of those declines was clear in Viacom’s latest quarter, where profits fell 10 percent to $470 million on weaker television ad revenue and declines in its movie business. Viacom’s challenge is to maintain its margins at a time when fewer people, particularly millennials, are paying for cable television. It also has to figure out how to attract young audiences at a time when doing so is increasingly tough. “MTV’s development process didn’t adapt quickly enough to the shifting preferences of its audiences,” Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman said on the company’s earnings call. “We’re fixing that by accelerating its development pipeline and returning its best series in faster cycles.”

That acceleration can’t come fast enough. “They’re in panic mode,” said Paul Verna, media analyst at eMarketer. “They’re seeing this young audience grabbing media from all these different places in this fractured media environment, and they’re hard to reach because everything is so fragmented and they’re not a part of the universe,” he said.

MTV executives were not made available for comment in time for publishing.

Still, the network clearly sees an opportunity in carving out a youth culture niche with MTV News, which was a defining cultural force in the 1990s, epitomized by its “Rock the Vote” campaigns and the infamous question to then-candidate Bill Clinton if he preferred boxers or briefs. But times change. Kurt Loder, the face of MTV News then, is now 70 years old. Clinton is an elder statesman. And TV isn’t as powerful to the younger generation.

“MTV was a brand that was revolutionary and completely set the tone for so much for the entire ’80s,” said Verna. “But they lost the script and haven’t been able to get it back.”

Not for lack of trying. Since last fall, it has hired two dozen writers and editors to build its music, news and culture coverage. Grantland editorial director Dan Fierman joined last year to lead the news effort and to build MTV News’ editorial identity. A handful of other Grantland staffers followed.

“It’s clear what they’re doing, but it feels like it’s too late for that brand,” said Verna. “They’ve already lost that connection they had with their audience, and they’re not in today’s zeitgeist. They’re competing with so many other parties now.”

The Web is a different beast from cable TV. Where MTV was once competing with only a handful of channels aimed at a similar audience, the number of media companies vying for its audience today has never been higher. Its MTV Snapchat Discover channel shares screen real estate with over a dozen other publishing brands that are also vying for the attention of Snapchat’s young users. It won’t be easy for MTV to stand out.

And yet if you can’t beat ’em, it’s often good to join ’em. MTV parent Viacom has linked up with Snapchat to sell ads on Snapchat original programming. Sure, teens might be more likely to be found on Snapchat, but advertisers have deeper links with MTV — and MTV has a big salesforce. At the same time, Viacom also launched a U.S version of MTV’s Snapchat Discover channel.

MTV may not have the same cultural significance it once had, but it’s proven to be adept at reinventing itself over the past decade, said Digitas media director Raymonde Brillantes-Green. He pointed to MTV’s early embrace of reality television with shows such as “The Real World” and its more recent investment in original dramas “Teen Wolf” and “The Shanarra Chronicles.” MTV may have strayed far from music, but “I have been impressed by their evolution,” said Brillantes-Green.

The issues MTV faces aren’t unique. Most TV media brands are wringing their hands over losing touch with millennials, who are far more likely than older demographics to skip cable altogether.

“Because of their target market of young people, they are on the sharp edge of a trend that every singe entity in television has to think about,” said Dan Cryan, senior director of broadband media at IHS. “It’s a distribution problem that it has to solve by going where the audience is.”

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