The lineup scheduled to grace the stage at Radio City Music Hall on Monday night is supposed to be the stuff of fantasy: Madonna, Logic, Post Malone, Travis Scott, Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, to start. Other attendees and presenters whose names have slowly trickled in — like Gucci Mane, DJ Khaled, Lenny Kravitz, Blake Lively, the Backstreet Boys — make the evening all the more promising yet.
But when the bejeweled MTV Video Music Awards show goes live on television tonight, it will likely draw fewer viewers than ever before in its history.
Numbers tell the story well enough on their own. While the 33-year-old ceremony captured hearts and record ratings alike in its decade-and-a-half-ago heyday, the VMAs managed to sink to an all-time low in viewership in 2017, drawing just 2.6 million people watching on MTV — though that figure doubles to 5.5 million when counting views from the simulcasts on VH1, BET, Spike, Comedy Central, MTV2 and TV Land — which is the lowest number recorded since Nielsen started tracking it in 1994. (HBO’s Game of Thrones season finale, which aired that same night, drew 12 million viewers.) The MTV channel-specific VMAs barely scraped ahead of a Rick and Morty episode on Adult Swim, which got 2.4 million viewers. Even by the 5.5 million figure, the awards show has lost 50 percent of its viewers in three years, according to Nielsen. While the VMAs managed to rally 12 million viewers in 2011, that figure has tumbled sharply ever since.
How did that happen? Why has the interest evaporated? It comes down to a combination of general awards apathy as well as the VMAs’ specific failure to lead music and entertainment culture anymore, media analysts tell Rolling Stone. The show began as an envelope-pushing event that stole both audience and influence away from the overly-elite Grammys. But it hasn’t had a truly unexpected or culture-setting moment in several years — a stark contrast from its glamorous run in the Nineties and 2000s, when it championed controversial acts and had moments like Britney Spears’ near-nude performance and Kanye West’s Taylor Swift diss that were so iconic they still rattle around in the zeitgeist today. Critics were already calling the show stale in 2007, when it experienced a ratings drop so alarming that MTV hired the creator of CBS’s Survivor to come in and help spice up the next iteration. (It didn’t really work.) Last year’s ceremony was so ordinary that Taylor Swift’s absence was deemed the most absorbing thing about it; Vulture, pointing out scores of empty seats as an indicator of how uninteresting the show has become even to its own live audience, called the show simply “beyond saving.”
Because new artists come onto the scene and explode at a rapid rate in the era of digital streaming, the once-a-year nature of the ceremony is already a handicap, making the VMAs appear outdated and reactionary instead of innovative. And the show becomes especially pointless to watch if it’s bereft of candid drama or bold, unpredictable moments — since the obligatory who’s-who excitement of red carpet photos and small moments of split-second amusement are easily viewable at any later point on social media.
It’s not as if the slipping relevance of awards shows is the VMAs’ cross to bear alone: From the Oscars to the Emmys to the Grammys, Hollywood’s gilded ceremonies are all falling out of favor, much for the same reason as above. (For a brief shining moment, the Grammys set itself apart earlier this year by having a slate of nominees more diverse than ever — but that moment was unfortunately overshadowed by Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s poorly-worded comments on women needing to “step up” in the music industry.) The VMAs’ poor ratings can also be attributed to broader missteps in the executive offices at MTV, which caused the network’s overall relevance to erode at record speed. Nielsen data shows that MTV’s ratings from 2011 to 2016 overall fell 50 percent in its core 18-to-49-year-old demographic. In tandem, shares of Viacom, MTV’s parent company, also are now only 50 percent of what they were five years ago.
Yet things have been looking up lately. Under its new head Chris McCarthy — who has refocused the company by building out inexpensive new reality shows and reintroducing old victories like TRL — MTV is finally gaining ratings momentum again. In 2018, for the first time in seven years, it saw its third consecutive quarter of year-over-year growth in its core demographic.
Unfortunately, the company’s new groove doesn’t seem to have extended to a meaningful VMAs revamp. One long-running criticism is that the VMAs doesn’t do enough to boost new artists, for example. This year, MTV has responded to those complaints by creating something called the “Push Artist of the Year,” an awkwardly-named competition category that aims to highlight new talent. One problem: It’s not very clear to audiences how the category is different from Best New Artist. Another: Most of the nominees (Khalid, Hayley Kiyoko, Noah Cyrus, SZA) are not exactly small or indie, sparking old grumbles that the show is still stuck in a feedback loop with popular music charts rather than venturing out on an interesting limb.
To its credit, the ceremony still bears significance. Some of its champions point out that the VMAs’ true relevance lies not in viewership numbers but in what it does for its performers and nominees, who are afforded enormous pop-culture clout for the whole year afterward, if not for the rest of their careers. And the show did see more than 50 million views on digital channels like Facebook in both 2016 and 2017, meaning there’s still a significant number of people around the world curious about it — even if they don’t want to sit through on the show on television.
There are ways for the VMAs to capitalize on that lingering interest: Esquire suggested in 2016 that MTV could make the the event a quarterly variety show, which would let it keep the “patina of a special event à la World Wrestling Entertainment’s big-deal pay-per-view broadcasts like WrestleMania and SummerSlam” but narrow down the berth of each show so that it could be relevant and unpredictable to music fans. It could also change up its awards in earnest, by redrawing its nomination system or replacing sweeping categories with ones that are more exact, for example — moves that would be especially noticeable at a time when all the other awards shows are only making meek, pandering attempts to adapt to modern consumption trends. All that is still to come. For Monday’s Radio City ceremony, it’s mostly a question of whether audiences will still faithfully come out for the same old thing as before, or let the show fade into loveless spectacle.