Commentary

Don't Trust Anybody Over 30 (Er, 20)!

They say, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there." Well, I remember the '60s--I was in grade school, and it was a very interesting time to be a kid. I clearly remember the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley and the semi-infamous phrase, "Don't trust anybody over 30." This was the time of free love, hippies, drugs, rock music and a spectacular culture clash that the pundits named "the generation gap." Concepts like, "do anything you want, as long as you don't hurt anybody," pervaded the youth-oriented social consciousness. Madison Avenue called it the "Pepsi Generation," but it wasn't --not even close. "F#@k the Establishment!" was the mantra of a very vocal community of singers/songwriters, filmmakers and artists who reflected the innermost feelings of the young and the rebellious.

Fast-forward 40 years and we find ourselves at another generational crossroads. According to The Wall Street Journal, MTV Online is having trouble competing with the likes of MySpace, Yahoo!, AOL and, of course, YouTube. What a surprise!

If 30 was the perceived age of adulthood in the '60s, those of us living in the temporally accelerated world of Internet time could posit that 20 is the new 30. MTV, at 25 years old, is certainly the establishment for digital natives (kids born into the digital age). So where's the story?

Well, MTV Networks has carved out a niche in the world of one-to-many communication. In the pool of branded cable networks, MTV is the de facto choice of media buyers looking to reach a youth audience. They have standards and practices that comply with the wishes of the Federal Communications Commission-- and, more importantly, those of their advertising clients. They have specific packaging that they offer these advertisers, at rates that can be negotiated on a level playing field by all parties. Well done, MTV.

However, in the online world, no such rules apply. As renegade or radical as MTV was back in the day, the world of online video is exponentially more renegade and radical. Pundits are blaming MTV's issues on all kinds of stuff that doesn't ring true. There are only two issues. One can be fixed and one can not. Viacom can't change the fact that it is a publicly traded corporation. That fact comes with a fairly serious set of restrictions as to conduct and content that can be purveyed. This will make it all but impossible for MTV to accurately reflect the culture of its actual audience.

That being said, MTV Online offers MTV the perfect opportunity to deal with a very real enemy: fragmentation. In a one-to-many environment, MTV must cater to the least common denominator. It must program to the largest possible audience segments. Aggregating viewers that advertisers want to reach is how it earns a living. But the music industry has become impossibly fragmented. Even a catch-all term like rap is only a catch-all to the uninitiated or those unschooled in the art. There are at least three major subsets of rap and a multitude of sub-subsets below them. A quick listen to the aggregated list of the top 40 best-selling songs tells the complete story--and it's harsh!

The solution can be found in a combination of techniques drawn from dynamic and addressable content management and behavioral targeting. In the one-to-one or one-to-community cloud world of IP provisioned video distribution, content distributors can literally cater to and aggregate communities that are microscopically fragmented in an efficient, profitable way.

The Journal says, "Ms. McGrath, MTV Networks' head, says Viacom doesn't have to test the boundaries of acceptable behavior in order to attract a larger audience. The company's future, she says, rests on its ability to innovate. For example, MTV plans to give consumers the ability to borrow clips for use in creating their own videos."

She may be right for the wrong reasons. The innovation required is not allowing users to consciously manipulate their programming; what's really required is a technology that serves users' individual needs using decision sciences, social networking, tag clouds and other techniques to enable discovery and use the medium as its own art form. This will have to include new, rethought, specially made creative advertisements. You can't run 30-second television commercials and expect them to sell anything - they're annoying and people hate them!

MTV may only be 25, but it is already acting old. And, old has been the enemy of young for quite some time. Does MTV have what it takes to compete? Let's see if we can find someone over 20 to ask.