The video star will never die: Music videos come home to TV

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Just after midnight on August 1, 1981, a woman in a silver-sequined costume slid down a human-sized glass test tube to announce the death of radio. It was the first music video ever aired on a TV network devoted entirely to music videos. But an era has passed since Video Killed the Radio Star. The “M” in “MTV” has come to lose all meaning, with TRL and Unplugged giving way to Real World and Jersey Shore.

And so the narrative goes that music video television met its end, ousted by reality TV and viewers’ evolving tastes. But consider this: Vevo saw 3.9 billion music video views on living room devices —  in May 2019.

“Over the past 12 months, when you look at mobile and desktop, we’re up or down a few digits here and there,” said Rob Christensen, Vevo’s vp of sales strategy and partnerships. “If you look at performance in terms of view count, connected TV has been the biggest growth factor for us across any screen. We have seen a 41 percent increase in the living room year-over-year.”

Music video never died, of course. Just look at the past decade: From Anaconda to Bad Blood to Despacito, the format has perpetually captured the public imagination while creating digital ad revenue, propelling album sales and song downloads and driving subscriptions to streaming services. There’s a reason that record labels have continued pouring money into Hollywood-level productions featuring some of the biggest celebrities on the planet.

But as digital platforms became the dominant medium for social engagement, distribution of music videos grew more closely tied to desktop and mobile, particularly through YouTube. The question is, what’s bringing them back to TV?  

For one thing, video environments that were once consigned to mobile and desktop are now widely available on television thanks to the rise of Smart TVs. (As of last year, 70 percent of all globally sold TVs were smart TVs, according to Statista.) YouTube itself is now a ubiquitous TV app. Video distributors and content creators have evolved their platform strategies along with this newfound availability.

Wider television access is hardly the whole story, though. After all, music videos were available on TV in the MTV era as well —  and that didn’t keep the ratings from falling. But now there’s a crucial difference: TV has become conducive to control and discoverability.  

In the age of TRL, viewers often had to wade through 5 stinkers to get to the video they were waiting for. Today’s viewers don’t have that kind of patience; in an era of self-curated playlists and instant content discovery, they expect speed and control —  and now they can get it. The personalization and ease of use that made mobile and desktop so inviting are increasingly available through connected TVs. As Christensen put it, “search is in convergence with the living room.”

Voice-operated search —  whether through voice-controlled remotes or smart speakers — is the biggest driver of this trend. Indeed, it’s the most propulsive factor in music video’s escalating prevalence on living room platforms.

On mobile and desktop, all you need is fast-fingered typing skills to swiftly surface your favorite videos, create playlists or rapidly discover new content. On connected TVs, the same efforts used to be a laborious chore. “Voice-activated search creates ease of use, taking you beyond the six button remote navigation,” said Kevin McGurn, Vevo’s president of sales and distribution.

The speed and flexibility afforded by voice search also allows for something else crucial to the living room experience: laid-back viewing. Voice search minimizes the time and energy that viewers have to devote to physically interacting with the platform.

Streaming audiences, now armed with widespread TV access and convenient discoverability tools, are amply demonstrating a desire to watch new and old music videos on a bigger screen. Not only are music video viewers returning to TV in droves —  they’re also more engaged in that environment. “The average user session on mobile is somewhere between 14 to 15 minutes,” explained Christensen. “The average user session in the living room is closer to 65 minutes.”

So what does it all add up to? Engaged users who watch for longer periods of time on a bigger screen. Don’t be shocked if these become meaningful considerations for advertisers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see media buyers start shifting dollars away from broadcast channels, tailoring ad spend specifically to music video viewers in the living room.

It also wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see music video advertisers who previously focused on smaller screens begin to invest in TV-friendly ad formats shot specifically for the living room. Conversely, we’re also likely to see ad formats that have long been popular on mobile and social platforms hit TV. “In a short time I’m sure we’ll see things like interactive ads and opportunities to share and click to share,” said Christensen.

The age of digital viewership breathed a new kind of cultural significance into music videos, making them focal points of social conversation. But what was often lost in the post-MTV era was the in-real-life social element —  that group of people sitting in the living room, chatting about the videos (and ads) they just saw. Connected TV environments are once again making that dynamic possible —  and viewers are demonstrating that they missed it.

Music video viewership never subsided. Even before TV’s recent rise to prominence as a music video streaming medium, Vevo was seeing more than 26 billion views per month, from a catalog of more than 350 thousand music videos. Thanks to new and evolving technologies, TV is simply attracting an existing music video audience and music services and platforms can now leverage this consumer demand.

The TV music video experience looks a lot different than it did in 1981, of course. The very definition of “TV” is a whole lot less concrete than it used to be. But the trend is clear: Music video viewers are coming home to the living room.

History may not always repeat itself —  but like a great chorus, it often rhymes.

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