What Went Wrong With MTV?

By Youth Specialtie Posted on January 15 2010

All through my adolescence no organization was cooler than MTV. They literally defined what was cool for my generation, as Frontline documented in The Merchants of Cool, MTV wasn't just lucky to hit a specific trend at a specific time for 20 plus years. My jaw dropped as I learned that MTV's programming hits were the results of intense and prolonged ethnographic study of their target audience. In other words, MTV wasn't just defining what was cool by themselves, they were hopping on trends and exploiting them for their purposes intentionally. That made them not only cool but powerful in defining culture. During that period MTV was much more than a cable station. 

Here's what is interesting. MTV isn't as powerful anymore. Sure, they are fun. Sure, they are profitable. Sure, they sell ad space. Sure, they fill their air time with programming. But they aren't innovating The Real WorldRoad Rules, or the after school special known purely as Carson Daley anymore. That's right, the company that succeeded for so long as a result of ethnographic studies defining their mission has now lost it's place in cultural significance. Their power is gone.

And why is this? I'm sure there are a number of factors. As an outsider I can't know what internal faux pax lead to their demise from the reign of teen culture creator. Yet I can state the obvious. They had the perfect ethnographically created content on the wrong medium for their demographic. See, the biggest problem MTV faced in the last 5 years is simply that their core audience doesn't watch as much TV. Therefore, their programming isn't influencing the right people anymore. Ads on their network aren't nearly as effective. And songs are not popular because Carson Daley said so. And since they aren't influencing the right people they have stopped defining what cool is. Cool is now defined on the internet in 2-3 minute videos. A kid with a $400 camera and iMovie has as good a shot at producing the next hit as a Viacom.

Suddenly, the industrial revolution had come full circle and cottage industry can now compete with mega industries! (You or I have the same chance of creating the next great thing as the Viacoms of the world!) Adolescents don't need to watch TV anymore if they can get their own customized "me channel" online via Facebook, YouTube, and the rest. MTV's flaw wasn't that they stopped doing the hard work, it's that the medium they needed to use couldn't work anymore. Their model has ultimately been their destruction; now MTV is just one of 700 channels on my cable line-up. With students, the Discovery Channel has as much influence as MTV. Anime took off despite MTV's ignoring it. Pop stars were born because of Fox'sAmerican Idol and not because of MTV's Made.

What does this have to do with me? I think there is a profound caution for youth workers in examining at MTV's fall from influence. Much of what we do every day is based on mountains of prolonged study of adolescent faith development and years of perfecting our craft. But I think that we are so convinced that we are merely perfecting what we are doing that we may end up like MTV if we are not careful. We may have a great message, a great band, a great event, and a great ministry that no one attends and is not powerful in the adolescent community it was designed to minister to.

One part of our job is to influence adolescent culture and point students to the timeless truth that a life with Jesus is more fulfilling than a life without Him. While youth workers are now better trained and more tuned-in to studying adolescent culture in their communities than ever before, we run the same risk as MTV. Many of us oversee organizations which are so inflexible that we cannot possibly adapt our methods fast enough. Most of us are shy about even evaluating our methods at all! The challenge for all of us in this is... How do we create a youth ministry paradigm that is nimble enough to adapt its methods to remain effective? Will our leaders support us if we kill a method that had been effective in the past? Will nostalgia lead to the demise of many youth groups?

We can learn from the MTV's of the world and avoid the same fate. Keep the message. Never be married to the methods!


Picture of Marcus Clifton

From Marcus Clifton on February 07, 2011

MTV is a great example of being the trend, then becoming the outdated. There are many examples of that.

As a Youth Pastor I have many things that limit my ability to communicate with youth in a way that is relevant to them now. The biggest is the medium in which I am skilled and trained in to influence youth through is out of date. It doesn’t work like it did in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. I learned what had worked not what was going to work in the future. So how do I change mediums when the medium to switch to is in the area of my weakness?

I have recourses through our church community and the community I live in. But I am limited to those resources. The trend has been and continues to be technological changes. Having video, music and computer skills are a must. I have some of them, but they are skills I learned in 1999-2003. Those skills are now outdated. So is the equipment. My weakness is now my ability to work with current technology that influences kids. It’s not only my weakness, but our entire church and our community. To keep up with technology, isn’t necessarily cheap.

I am gifted in running large group functions, and doing upfront teaching. But that seems to be old school. Doing crazy games, capture the flag, all-nighters with some contemporary worship songs…

I would love to do all my teachings with cool videos, make fancy music videos, and do Bible studies over face-book. But that is not where my skills are, nor anyone at our church.

I could go back to school for some of those skills, but with a family and job that requires a lot of time; I just don’t have the time. 

So what do I do now? I admit I am 32 and just an old school out of date minister to youth. I do my best to share God’s love, disciple youth and be OK that I will never be cool. That the retreats and programs I do will be more about the youth appeasing me than drawn in by a cool relevant program. I hope and pray that the youth see my efforts and the efforts of our church as a glimpse of God’s love for them, even if our techniques are outdated and uncool.

We may be uncool, cheesesy and old school, but we passionately love youth.

Picture of Lizzy

From Lizzy on March 12, 2011

@Marcus Clifton
Admittedly, the majority of we adolescents are addicted to Facebook, the Internet, YouTube and media.
My Dad works in a jail, and he reckons that instead of putting kids in juvenile detention for when they’ve really gone off the rails, they should be put in a white room, with no computer, TV, telephonic device, music players or anything truly stimulating. No textbooks or novels, either; no junk food, low meat, low dairy, mainly vegetables. All this for thirty-six hours.

My point? Even though a lot of kids will think you’re hopelessly clueless and outdated… there is a small part of us that knows and appreciates the fact that, you do love us.
Even if we do want to make you rip your hair out by the roots sometimes.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.