ENTERTAINMENT

Can MTV Go Back To The Music In An On-Demand World?

How one of the most iconic cable channels can bring itself into the cord-cutting present.

It's a phenomenon that would seem unheard of to today's 18-24 demographic, but MTV was first brought into consciousness by a single rallying cry: "I want my MTV!"

The slogan implored anyone listening to call their cable provider and ask -- nay, demand -- that MTV be included in their package. Today, when the aftershock waves of "Unplugged," "Yo! MTV Raps," "Total Request Live," and even "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom" continue to ripple throughout pop culture, it's difficult to imagine a cable lineup without that ubiquitous giant "M" logo. 

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Then again, these days, it's difficult to imagine a cable lineup at all. Over the past few decades, viewing habits have shifted from hours logged surfing through 1,000-plus channels of premium cable to on-demand streaming feeds curated by users themselves. Viewers choose what they want to watch instead of finding something by happenstance; we can watch the latest episode of our favorite show whenever we feel like it instead of conforming to a channel's airing schedule. 

It'll be interesting to see how MTV adapts to this environment on the heels of the network's announcement that they, like so many other film and TV enterprises, are looking backward in order to get ahead. Yup: MTV's president Sean Atkins recently told Variety they'll be bringing back music programming, starting with "Unplugged," a feature that began in 1989, showcasing musicians of all stripes giving intimate acoustic performances. Variety noted that though the network has struck gold in reality fare like the aforementioned "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom," as well as "Catfish," advertising revenues were down, and something needed to change. 

Take those aforementioned reality shows, add other MTV staples like "True Life," "The Real World" and "The Challenge," and cut the mix with a decent amount of scripted programming, and the joke from the mid-aughts on was easy: "Why doesn't 'Music Television,' um, play music videos anymore?" Some felt the final death knell for the network came around 2010, when the network announced it would be scrapping its iconic logo for a fatter "M," the words "Music Television" conspicuously absent.

Of course, to go back to what many would call the glory days of early MTV, when music videos and accompanying music chatter were the rule of the land, would simply be an attempt to fit a square premium-cable peg in a round hole. With just about every music video at our proverbial fingertips, there's no longer an incentive to tune in and see if your favorite will air on TV, and with surprise album releases and leaks in abundance on the Internet, waiting to find out about a new Drake or Taylor Swift album on television seems prehistoric. "Unplugged" in a pre-Internet era was iconic because it was a divine thing to catch a fleeting glimpse of Kurt Cobain and co., or Lauryn Hill, performing like you had never heard them before. These days, you can find a clip online and re-live it whenever you want, or pass it over in favor of the endless other videos available. 

Beyoncé and HBO, of course, made the case for a world in which premium cable and music can create a you-had-to-be-there viewing experience. But, special events like album drops -- from perhaps the biggest recording artist out there right now -- do not a regular programming schedule make. 

MTV capitalized on a recent opportunity to remind us all of the power of great music programming. The death of music icon Prince, which sent chills through the world, made just as big of an impact on the music network: MTV eschewed its regular schedule, including a "Real World" premiere, to air the "Purple Rain" film, footage of his performances and his music videos. On the Internet side, they went live with a roundtable discussion of Prince's impact featuring editorial director Jessica Hopper and reporter Doreen St. Félix, who presented an understated delivery of the news reminiscent of the network's Kurt Loder and Su-chin Pak era.

It was a nod to MTV roots, adapted for the present.

It seems the music programming could follow the same path: creating something for TV that's just as easily consumed and shared online. Along with reviving "Unplugged," the network will also have "Wonderland," a weekly series of comedic and musical performances where stars try out new formats for a special, one-off experience. These bring to mind BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge, where artists perform unique covers, the popularity of wild "Lip Sync Battle" YouTube clips or even James Corden's smash "Carpool Karaoke" segment -- two examples of traditional media and the Internet coming together in beautiful harmony. 

The network has no problem establishing its voice online, either. What seems to be a recently revamped MTV News Instagram account shares relevant info in a bright, fun feed that is seemingly right at home with the Tumblr aesthetic. Plus, the MTV News account's recent "takeover" on Twitter showed they clearly know how to speak to the kids these days (and I just aged 100 years/lost 1,000 relevancy points typing that sentence).

We're excited to see MTV get back to its music- and news-heavy past and bring it into the post-aughts, or whatever we're calling this decade. The steps they've taken so far show a bright future ahead. 

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Jillian Capewell on Twitter: @jcapecape

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