As Post Malone played guitar alongside Aerosmith during a medley of “Dream On” and “Toys in the Attic” at the VMAs on Monday, the camera kept cutting to shots of the audience who seemed just as confused and tired as I was. One could imagine the three different reactions to this situation: Older generations wondering who this sleaze with face tattoos is playing with Aerosmith, teens puzzling over who this band of Jack Sparrow cosplayers is with Posty, and millennials trying to figure out why the hell these two acts are paired together for the grand finale of the show.
It was clear in that moment—and many points throughout the show—that MTV’s Video Music Awards were for no one. And that’s reflected in the ratings, where the 2018 MTV VMAs hit an all-time low for the second year in a row. The show, which was broadcast on MTV and simulcast across ten other outlets owned by parent company Viacom (like VH1 and Comedy Central), saw a 10 percent decline in the key demo of 18 to 49 year olds, according to Deadline. It’s total viewership of 5.2 million also fell 8 percent.
Okay so this is bad—especially considering last year the VMAs competed with the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. This year, having moved to a Monday night and against no massive pop culture event like GoT, the VMAs still saw viewership decrease. What’s even worse is that its numbers dropped in its core demographic.
And looking forward, it’s hard to see how they could recover. By Tuesday morning, there were few lasting stories worth talking about from the VMAs, which aired only hours earlier. The two-and-a-half hour award show had failed to generate any story beyond Madonna’s flubbed Aretha Franklin tribute, which was more the fault of the VMAs producers, who couldn’t pull together anything meaningful in the days after the icon’s death.
Even the drama, for which the MTV VMAs are known, was nonexistent. That’s partially because no one showed up to cause any drama. Four out of the six Video of the Year nominees were no shows. Donald Glover, Drake, Bruno Mars, and Beyonce and Jay-Z weren’t there. Hell, even the most boring guy in popular music, Ed Sheeran, didn’t bother to go this year and he was nominated for three awards.
What’s strange is the music video is more important now than it has been in the last two decades. Look at the viral power of any Drake video, the message of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” or The Carters’ “Apeshit.” The music video is thriving, yet the only award show solely dedicated to music videos doesn’t even use the term “video” in its categories. Instead, they give out awards called Best Latin, the name for which is insulting at best.
Award shows in general have seen ratings decline in recent years. This month, the Academy Awards announced adjustments to its format—including a best popular film category—in an effort to stem viewership losses. So, this isn’t a problem isolated to the MTV VMAs; however, this is an award show that doesn’t know who or what it’s for anymore. It’s certainly not giving out coveted awards, and now it’s not even delivering the entertainment or drama.
What’s promising is that this year’s VMAs drew 141.6 million digital streams and a 46 percent rise in social engagement. The VMAs were originally conceived in the ’80s as the counterculture of award shows—an alternative to the staid Grammys. And as traditional award shows decline, the VMAs have become just like all the others. Now, especially given the growing streaming numbers, the VMAs have an opportunity to evolve into something different. Maybe it’s time to abandon TV all together, to reach a new generation on the platforms where they consume music and culture and videos on social media and streaming platforms. Or, you know, maybe next year have Lil Xan play with Tony Bennett and see how that works out.