It wasn’t that long ago that cable brands like MTV and Comedy Central ruled the airwaves with a certain demographic. The channels were by-words in teen and young adult culture, both reflecting and defining trends and defining cool and funny. Things have changed. YouTube and streaming media have captured the attention of the key target demographics for these stations, and that has the top brass searching for answers. Some are looking for them in other jobs.
Veteran leader Doug Herzog, who heads MTV and Comedy Central, has announced plans to exit the company soon. This is a big change for both Viacom and Herzog, who joined the company way back in 1984 as president of MTV Productions.
These were the salad days of Music Television when videos ruled, and their content created culture as much as it reflected culture. Herzog rode that wave all the way until the end when MTV started its transition from videos to other content. One of these offerings was The Real World, a fledgling reality TV series that ran for multiple seasons and created a new kind of TV star.
Herzog had a major hit on his hands on a network that looked for a while like it was dying to a changing culture. Other carbon copy shows and some new (literal) sketch comedies followed. After that success, he was given the reins at Comedy Central, where he helped create two more massive hits – The Daily Show and South Park.
So, what’s going on at Viacom? After all, Herzog is only the latest in a string of top brass who are leaving the company, right on the heels of CEO Philippe Dauman, who was replaced by Bob Bakish.
There’s no doubt Viacom has been hurting in recent years. The internet has stolen its viewers by the legion, followed by an exodus of streaming media fans. Gen Xers and Millennials who used to sit in front of MTV for hours and who counted John Stewart and Stephen Colbert as their generation’s Cronkite and Rather are now much more likely to binge on Netflix or Amazon Prime than to flip the dial to MTV.
At present, there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to stop the bleeding. The dynamics that made shows like TRL famous have been eclipsed by the connection fans feel with stars on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. And reality shows are no longer innovative, even though they are still everywhere on cable. Meanwhile, upstart music channels are playing videos and concerts, what MTV started out doing … and something they haven’t really done much of in decades. It’s tough to rediscover your niche when your target market doesn’t know what it should be … and isn’t interested in finding out.