Initial Nielson numbers for Monday night’s MTV Video Music Awards have come in, and they don’t look good. In spite of being simulcast on more Viacom stations this his year than in any other previous year, the 2018 awards show had only an estimated 5.25 million viewers. That’s an all-time low since Nielson started tracking the VMAs back in the early 1990’s.
To put that in perspective, Rolling Stone points out that, on the same night, the ABC’s World News Tonight had 8 million viewers. So the VMAs — once arguably the biggest television music event of the year — couldn’t even reach the same number of people who watched just one network’s nightly news program just a little earlier that evening.
It’s no secret that the number of viewers has been tailing off in each of the last several years. But this year’s numbers are notably bad, at around half of the number of viewers that watched in 2014, which by anybody’s standard is a pretty drastic decline. MTV and its parent company, Viacom, have pointed to lots of potential reasons, including tougher and more varied competition on cable today, changing demographics, and the exodus of many users from cable to digital platforms.
But maybe MTV’s missing something more obvious? Viewers are a lot less engaged in programs like the VMAs when very few artists are doing interesting pop music. Even more than that: viewers are also a lot less engaged when their favorite stars are simply not involved.
In 2014, when the VMAs had almost double the viewership as this year’s awards, the winners alone included Miley Cyrus (for “Wrecking Ball”), Katy Perry (for “Dark Horse”), Ariana Grande (for “Problem”), Drake (for “Hold On, We’re Going Home”), Sia (for “Chandelier”), Eminem (for “Rap God”), Lorde (for “Royals”), and Beyonce (for “Drunk in Love” and the Video Vanguard Award), not to mention wins by Ed Sheeran, Fifth Harmony, Arcade Fire, 5 Seconds of Summer and Zedd. Like this year (and almost every year at this point), the 2014 telecast had a couple big floor-show numbers performed by Ariana Grande (“Break Free”) and Nicki Minaj (“Anaconda”), but it also had classic – even iconic – performances by Ariana, Nicki and Jessie J (“Bang Bang”), Taylor Swift (“Shake it Off”) and Beyonce, who danced and sang her way through a nearly 20-minute mini concert at the end of the night. And on top of those, the show still managed to squeeze in live performances by Maroon 5, Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith and 5SOS.
The truth is that the VMAs had experienced viewership slumps before its revival in the years 2009 to 2014, and the way out of those slumps has always been to make sure that the biggest stars showed up. And when these acts did show up, sometimes controversies naturally erupted, which created some fun side noise. However, the main attraction has always been in getting the most popular stars to attend and whenever possible perform.
So this year, with no Miley, no Taylor, no Katy, no Drake, no Kanye, no Eminem, no Lady Gaga, no Justin Bieber, no Demi Lovato — and only a little manufactured controversy between Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott to liven things up – it is really easy to see the actual reason why ratings were bad. And it didn’t have to do with additional competition from other cable channels, demographics, or people getting distracted on the Internet.
(Image source: MTV Video Music Awards Instagram account)
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