Brand Health Check: MTV

Despite expanding its offering, the music channel is struggling to stem a marked decline in viewers, writes Jeremy Lee.

It will be 27 years in August since MTV launched in the US, presaged by the doom-laden pronouncement from Buggles that Video Killed the Radio Star. Now it seems the cold hands of progress are reaching for its neck instead.

When MTV made its first appearance in the UK, with the launch of MTV Europe in 1987, the concept of a dedicated music video channel aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds was revolutionary and captivated its audience.

Not surprisingly, rival broadcasters, including Emap and Sky, and to some extent Channel 4, with its 4Music strand, have subsequently attempted to catch up, meaning the MTV brand no longer has the cachet it once did.

In its attempts to stay ahead of the game and further segment the audience available, Viacom-owned MTV cannot be accused of complacency. It has expanded its family of channels beyond the core original MTV station, which is now known as MTV One, with the launch of MTV Hits, MTV Two, MTV Base, MTV Dance and MTV R.

A more recent experiment was the introduction of MTV Flux. The channel was a brave concept. It operated on the premise that it was viewer-controlled and focused on broadcasting user-generated content across the web and mobile phones as well as TV. It was not a success, however, and was closed earlier this month to be replaced by a time-shifted version of MTV One, called MTV One+1.

Indeed, all MTV-branded channels have suffered from a marked decrease in viewing share between 2003 and 2007; the biggest dip was among the 16- to 24-year-old male audience, which dropped by 37.2% in all multichannel homes.

The statistics for its flagship MTV One channel, also make for depressing reading - in 2003, its top programme was European Music Awards 2003 The Main Show, with 647,000 viewers and a 5.1% share; by 2007 the top programme was Totally Jodie Marsh: The Aftermath, with just 171,000 viewers and a 0.8% share.

Despite its attempts to reinvent itself, there seem to be more fundamental problems at MTV. But is its malaise terminal? We asked Glyn Britton, planning director at Albion, who has strategic responsibility for Last.fm, and Martin Bowley, chief executive of Pitch Entertainment and former chief executive of Carlton TV, for their verdicts and where MTV can go next.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - GLYN BRITTON PLANNING DIRECTOR, ALBION

Plummeting viewing figures and axed channels would seem to indicate that MTV is knackered. But a closer inspection reveals that it is actually doing a great job of transforming itself into a 21st-century media company.

Its core TV channels still seem to be popular with (some of) the kids. One of my team tells me that MTV's offering remains the default slack-jawed post-school viewing for his three teenagers.

More significantly, MTV seems to be gaining an online audience. Digital properties are Viacom's forte with 1.2bn video streams in 2007, 30m unique visitors a month and mobile video streams growing nearly 100% year on year.

But, apart from video distribution, what is its role online? If I want to find out more about LA band Panic At The Disco, then I'll go to its official website or its MySpace page but probably not MTV Two's site.

MTV Flux tried to answer that question. It has boosted time spent on MTV sites, but the TV channel was an experiment to see whether it could make TV social - and make money. Guess the answer.

REMEDY

- Keep experimenting. It is what the audience wants, and it is what keeps MTV ahead. Ignore predictions of doom based solely on TV performance.

- Don't try to compete with Facebook and MySpace to be a social media platform; instead co-operate with them.

- Employ fresh talent. Any entrepreneurial, young music lover used to want to work for MTV, but now might prefer to start their own media brand instead.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - MARTIN BOWLEY CHIEF EXECUTIVE, PITCH ENTERTAINMENT

Depressing, really; an iconic youth brand that finds itself with no brand leverage in the youth market. The key cause of audience loss is that the dinosaur terrestrial channels have moved with incredible speed to launch digital channels, so those who may have zapped to MTV after Wife Swap are getting their musical fix from a different channel.

Also, now that PS3 and Wii consoles are plugged into the TV, they further strip away potential viewers. MTV may well also be losing its association with youth music. It is probably no coincidence that MTV's decline in audience is linked to the fact that bands' and artists' key earnings are coming from touring, appearing in venues owned and run by Live Nation or performing at a festival sponsored by Virgin.

The MTV Music Awards seem so distant from the relevance of The O2 arena. Moving into online is risky as it is populated by fresh strong music brands, I asked my colleagues where they find music and it went like this: YouTube, iTunes, file-sharing and mates. And have you been to its new office? Rock'n'roll it ain't.

REMEDY

- Stop kidding yourself that it is just about music - create an MTV channel that lives in the middle of the digital terrestrial channels on the Sky EPG. Sitting where it does at present will kill it long term.

- Create a channel devoted to non-music shows that sits alongside it. This kind of programming was mentioned as worth watching by nearly everyone I spoke to.

- Form an alliance with Live Nation to work out a venue, artist and ticketing plan.

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