Over the years, MTV has been the impish child, the rebellious teenager and the devil-may-care twentysomething.
Now, as it rounds into middle age, the network that brought a cultural revolution to television is making a big bet on nostalgia. In an old Art Deco building in Los Angeles, engineers are feverishly digitizing old VHS tapes filled with live performances and interviews from the many musicians and stars that have graced MTV’s studios in the past 35 years, assembling one of the world’s greatest libraries of pop culture ephemera.
A network that has been an afterthought, VH1 Classic, is being transformed into MTV Classic, a new home for old hits Beavis & Butt-head, Daria and Jackass and reruns of music shows Unplugged and Storytellers.
MTV Classic marks a major strategic shift at MTV, which has typically shunned its past. Executives wanted to create the next Jersey Shore and Total Request Live rather than relive the good old days. But the network, owned by struggling media giant Viacom Inc., has suffered from falling ratings and a lack of buzzworthy hits.
As MTV strives to reclaim its status as the arbiter of cool for teenagers and young adults, the channel’s leadership is beginning to see value in its past. MTV has brought back its news division and ordered its first regular live music series in almost 20 years.
“Part of the reason our brand is powerful is because so many of us still have affection for what MTV is or was or could be,” says Erik Flannigan, a former music journalist who joined Viacom in 2006. “There are great things that happened on MTV that are valuable and merit consideration.”
Viewership of MTV among the network’s target demo has declined at an annual rate of 17 percent since 2011, according to data from research firm MoffettNathanson LLC. Thanks to drops at its other networks, Viacom has reported lower domestic advertising sales seven quarters in a row.
MTV’s past lives on in one place: the Vault, a library of more than 2 million files dating back to the network’s inception in 1981. The Vault houses full episodes of Yo! MTV Raps and Total Request Live, as well as footage from the red carpets of major awards shows, behind-the-scenes at music festivals and interviews with major political and cultural figures.
On one recent trip down memory lane, an MTV producer found clips of pop star Bruno Mars dancing as a young child, Donald Trump introducing Eminem and rapper Master P interviewing Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Jeff Jacobs, a senior vice president in Viacom’s music and entertainment group, calls such clips buried treasure. Jacobs, a lifelong New Yorker with a wry sense of humor, joined MTV a decade ago eager to find the gems.
“From day one, we always knew somewhere there had to be an Indiana Jones warehouse with all our gold,” Jacobs says. The gold wasn’t hard to find, but it was hard to use. Footage sat in boxes at storage facilities around the country, stored on VHS tapes, Betamax tapes and other arcane technologies.
This was a recipe for disaster, especially as the artists of MTV’s early years started to die. The night Michael Jackson died in 2009, MTV covered the news live for two hours, but couldn’t access old clips of the pop star because they were in storage, and the library closed before Jackson’s death had been confirmed.
A similar situation played out a few years later when Whitney Houston died on Grammy weekend. The library isn’t open on weekends.
Jacobs took these examples to senior executives at MTV and Viacom, and finally got permission to embrace his inner Harrison Ford. A team of researchers and specialists has spent the past few years combing through the archive, flagging, tagging and digitizing clips based on priorities established by an editorial committee. Videos deemed high priority are made available in an online database, while the full three seasons of Date My Mom haven’t left a warehouse.
The old footage serves two purposes (beyond simple preservation). For one, MTV can more effectively license its library to people making documentaries or movies, generating additional revenue. The process of digitizing the Vault, though time-consuming, will pay for itself, Jacobs says. The network no longer has to waste time sending staffers to storage facilities for tapes or pay for shipping. It can call them up with the stroke of a few keys.
The second is the repurposing of old footage for TV shows, news articles, Snapchat stories and YouTube. MTV made a documentary about R.E.M. primarily based on footage from old interviews, and has begun to use old footage on various social media channels and its website as part of #TBMTV—Throwback MTV.
“We can create digital franchises out of this material, whether it’s bits for Snapchat, YouTube or Instagram,” said Alex Pappademas, managing editor of MTV News. “Young people are really interested in nostalgia and the past.”
Pappademas’s team turned old footage of Bob Dylan walking along the beach into a brief, comedic video called Bob Dylan on the Beach, an MTV News Original Movie. For Ice Cube’s birthday, they pulled out footage from an early interview with the rapper.
MTV Classic will replace VH1 Classic on Aug. 1 with a rebroadcast of the original MTV’s first hour, with a documentary on Total Request Live and an MTV Unplugged marathon later in the day. Movies, concerts and even music videos will also figure into the rotation.
Much of MTV’s archive resides in that Art Deco building, spitting distance from Paramount Pictures and Viacom’s new Hollywood offices. The facility is owned by Iron Mountain Inc., a Boston-based company that stores and manages the assets of law firms, hospitals, record labels and sports teams in more than 1,350 facilities around the world.
With more than 1,600 entertainment clients (and 220,000 clients in total), Iron Mountain possesses the majority of this country’s cultural memorabilia. One floor in the Hollywood facility holds items from Universal Music Group, including master recordings of Miles Davis and the Beach Boys. Another holds an archive from the University of Southern California’s film school, including student films by George Lucas and Ron Howard.
Iron Mountain must retain 70 different kinds of outdated audio machines to keep playing the various tapes and recordings in its possession, and executives often patrol EBay for parts to keep their equipment in peak condition.
Jacobs and his brethren at MTV are way ahead of the curve in digitizing their assets, according to Jeff Anthony, the head of entertainment services at Iron Mountain. The company has digitized more than 20 percent of its library. Most other media companies have digitized less than 10 percent.
“MTV and Viacom are at the tip of the spear when it comes to this whole monetization model,” Anthony said. “They are digitizing almost everything. There are a lot of companies looking at them saying, ‘if it works for you, we’re going to do it too.’ ”
The digitized Vault has already passed a major test. When David Bowie died, MTV executives quickly found a clip of the singer chiding MTV veejay Mark Goodman for the channels’ lack of diversity. The video went viral online within hours.
“That’s an amazing success right there,” says Jacobs. “That was a big win.”