There’s an iconic scene in the 1997 cinematic masterpiece, “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” where one of the titular characters had, like, a dating emergency, so she attempted to audition for “Singled Out,” MTV’s raucously puerile dating show—only to be flatly rejected. At age 28, Romy White was deemed too old and too uncool to be considered MTV material. “Try VH1,” she was told.
That fictional film moment neatly encapsulated the hubris that MTV—the arbiter and purveyor of pop culture cool at the time—must have felt without realizing that a seismic shift was underway. In the penultimate years before the turn of the millennium, MTV may have still held cachet for young audiences, but its youthful exuberance was quickly starting to lose some of its luster, thanks to the incursion of the Interwebz.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years into the new century, and MTV barely registers on the radar of most Millennials these days. While “I want my MTV!” was a pop culture battle cry for many Gen Xers, Generation Y has largely dismissed the original music television network as a source for music discovery or pop culture relevance.
Founded in 1981, on the cusp of when the oldest Millennials were born, MTV is now starting to show its near-middle age and the cable network’s viewership (and cultural influence) has waned dramatically. To be fair, broadcast and cable networks, in general, have experienced viewership declines in recent years due to myriad factors but especially among younger audiences, many of whom have cut the cord and moved on to social channels and web-based entertainment options like YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix to get their music and video fixes.
As points of comparison, adults ages 50 to 64 typically watch 39 hours and 21 minutes of traditional television per week, while Millennials between the ages of 25 and 34 watch 21 hours and 10 minutes of traditional television per week, according to Nielsen data. Moreover, teens between the ages of 12 and 17 watch a mere 17 hours of traditional television per week, a 30% contraction over a five-year period. It’s no wonder that networks like MTV, which once had a stranglehold on the pop culture zeitgeist, are now desperately trying to reinvent themselves for the digital age.
A survey conducted by Defy Media on the video consumption habits of young people paints a grim picture for traditional television: according to the report, Gen Y’s top sources for video content are YouTube (85%), Netflix (66%) and Facebook (53%). While 67% of Millennials said they couldn’t live without YouTube, only 36% of them said they couldn’t live without TV. What appears to be driving the exodus of young viewers from standard television programming seems to be a combination of social media, content themes, and the relatability of YouTube personalities, among other factors.
For many Millennials, web-based channels provide content that they want and that they can relate to, things that Millennials believe traditional television has been less successful at accomplishing. According to Defy Media, digital content reigns supreme for Millennials mostly because online personalities are more relatable and influential. A large driver for Gen Y’s online content consumption is the fact that 62% of Millennials reported that digital content “just makes them feel good about themselves,” compared to 40% of Millennials who reported that television made them feel the same way.
It’s a curious conundrum for formerly hot networks like MTV, which for years held the pulse of what the young’uns cared about. For once influential networks that have since grown long in the tooth, the loss of a coveted viewer segment (and the marketing dollars that go with it) is one thing, but losing cultural relevance is something else altogether.
Many Gen Xers may recall the conversations that we had with our parents back in ye olden days begging for cable television at home so that we could tune in to “120 Minutes” to catch a glimpse of the music and pop culture that would shape our young identities. Meanwhile, Millennials today don’t need (or want) a corporate pop culture machine to tell them what they want. Instead, Millennials are looking to each other and to YouTube personalities to set the tone of pop culture influence without the corporate spiel.
If Romy White was looking to remedy her dating emergency today, chances are pretty good that she would bypass MTV altogether, set up her own YouTube channel, and find a date on her own terms without being judged as being too old or too uncool. That would shut up the A Group right away, amirite?