The winner for best new award ceremony is... YouTube?
Google is entering the brand promotion territory occupied for three decades by MTV
You can sometimes tell a lot about the state of an industry from the titles of the awards it gives out. When the nominations for the first ever YouTube Music Awards were announced this week, all the usual suspects, plus Bat for Lashes, slotted into categories such as YouTube Breakthrough (translation: we’re claiming the credit for this one), YouTube Phenomenon (we made a lot of cash on these clicks), Response of the Year (tedious video-selfie cover alert) and Innovation of the Year (modern-day parlance for “here’s some nice arty stuff, hey YouTube is home to more than just shaky-cam amateur hour”).
Google still insists that it doesn’t make its own content, and has no interest in doing so. And yet its move to add a new event to the awards ceremony calendar, with a performance courtesy of Lady Gaga, has been interpreted as the laying down of a flashy gauntlet to the Viacom-owned MTV, which for 29 years now has staged the MTV Video Music Awards, and also happens to be an investor in original content.
Indeed, rather than merely acting as a cable and satellite conduit for musical spectacle, MTV has focused on making its own programmes for so long now that it has ceased to be remarkable, and there is no surer way to reveal one’s advancing age than to moan that “MTV doesn’t show music videos anymore”. Your teenage child will neither find this at all upsetting nor understand what you mean by “anymore”.
Viacom, which also owns Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures, is doing okay these days – people love SpongeBob SquarePants, and Star Trek has been known to attract a fan or two. Media stock analysts tip it ahead of its directly comparable peers. But in 2013, its sparkle is more than a little overshadowed by the bling of Google. Viacom has a market value of $40 billion. Google’s market value, meanwhile, swelled by the same sum – $40 billion – in a single trading session last Friday, as a 14 per cent surge took its share price above the $1,000 mark for the first time. The phrase is “content is king”, but sometimes it seems more like content is the jester in the court of Google, and music industry executives are among its chief courtiers.
Although it is the success of the Android mobile platform that is largely driving Google’s share price, its ownership of YouTube is not insignificant and not unrelated.
At the moment, the risks it poses to the traditional broadcasting industry appear to be contained. The global television advertising market was worth $350 billion in 2012, while around $4 billion of Google’s $50 billion revenues last year are estimated to have come from YouTube.
But YouTube’s video advertising revenues are growing at a substantially faster rate than the industry as a whole, rising 75 per cent in the third quarter. For broadcasters that haven’t figured out a way to share the online spoils, the combined Android-YouTube threat is looming larger than a wrecking ball.
So is this the dawn of the age of the YouTube-branded “event” – all highly choppable into short-form clips, naturally – or will MTV, the micro-content pioneer of the 1980s, still be delivering a high-rating “Oscars of youth” package to audiences in a decade’s time?
In latter years, the MTV VMAs has become a parody of itself, stuck on a loop of faux-rivalries and flesh-coloured underwear. Perhaps it was ever thus. Back in the 1980s, it fell to Madonna to send out the initial shockwaves, with the singer having the temerity to irritate her corporate paymaster Pepsi as she writhed her way through pop history. In the 1990s, the ceremony began to follow a set format: a much-hyped performance by an incongruous pair of musical acts that happen to share the same label, an inappropriate joke by a not even vaguely sober award presenter and an emotional tribute to a recently deceased artist.
US television ratings for this giant marketing exercise peaked at 12.4 million in 2011 when Beyonce revealed her pregnancy on stage, though it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the VMAs peaked in entertainment terms in 2008, when host Russell Brand told US audiences that back in Britain, then president George Bush “wouldn’t be trusted with a pair of scissors”.
No matter how many people end up watching its “fan-powered”, live-streamed inaugural awards ceremony on November 3rd, no matter how nakedly self-promotional the award categories, and no matter how strong or weak the “controversy” generated by the event, it is the cash-rich YouTube that will finish 2013 sitting pretty in the pop culture pile, laying claim to the same industry-disrupting influence once enjoyed by MTV.