MTV Looks To Capitalize On Nostalgia With New 'Classic' Channel

Aug 1, 2016
Originally published on August 1, 2016 7:18 pm

In honor of MTV's 35th birthday Monday, the network has launched MTV Classic, a new channel featuring programming from the '90s and '00s. On the same day, we also wish a happy birthday to NPR Music and Pop Culture Happy Hour's Stephen Thompson, who celebrates with an interview on All Things Considered about how MTV Classic is redefining which popular culture fits into the current environment for nostalgia.

With the new channel, MTV — a pioneer of reality shows like The Real World and stripped-down musical performances — is reminding us of its status as a cultural vanguard, as well as its role in the cultural development of several generations, Thompson says. Daria, Beavis & Butt-Head and Pimp My Ride, among the old favorites resurfacing from the network's archives, rose to popularity at a key point for many of today's young adults. Now, like Happy Days and The Monkees before them, those shows have become subjects of fond memory — an inevitable result of culture that continues to change rapidly. "Nostalgia has this incredible way of not only resuscitating your past, but also flushing it away," Thompson says, noting that earlier generations' view of MTV's golden age included its willingness to air music videos. Those videos were a casualty of the shows that now play on MTV Classic.

"Nostalgia" — from the Greek nostos for "return home" and algos for "pain" — entered the English language meaning "acute homesickness." For MTV fans, Thompson says, the new channel offers a chance to return not only to beloved programming, but also to the age viewers were when that culture first entered their consciousness.

"You're nostalgic for being 11 years old; you're nostalgic for being 21 years old. And so MTV, in launching MTV Classic, is trying to re-create that feeling as much as it's trying to reuse old programming."

Hear Thompson's full interview with Audie Cornish at the link above.

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This is now considered classic.


MIKE JUDGE: (As Beavis) Did you know when you eat rump roast, you're eating a cow's butt?

CORNISH: I'm not joking.


JUDGE: (As Beavis) That's cool.

CORNISH: The TV show "Beavis And Butt-Head" - "Daria" and "The Real World," too.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This is the true story.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) True story.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Of seven strangers.


TRACY GRANDSTAFF: (As Daria Morgendorffer) I don't like to smile unless I have a reason.

WENDY HOOPES: (As Helen Morgendorffer) Daria.

CORNISH: MTV is 35 today, and on its birthday has launched a new channel, MTV Classic. And it's all MTV programming from the '90s and 2000s. Stephen Thompson - is this happening, the '90s and 2000s?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: This is really happening. As you and I careen toward the grave...


THOMPSON: ...The things that we enjoyed as children or teenagers or college students is now considered nostalgia.

CORNISH: NPR Music's Stephen Thompson is not only one of our pop culture experts. He actually made an MTV appearance from his college radio station, the University of Wisconsin, back in 1993. Stephen Thompson, you're a classic, I guess.

THOMPSON: Yeah. If you saw the footage - and I'm glad you haven't...


THOMPSON: ...You would not say that I'm a classic. I actually got to co-host an entire episode of "Alternative Nation" with Kennedy from this basement radio studio. And it is horrifying to watch.

CORNISH: All the marquee names, though. You're dropping names left and right...

THOMPSON: Dropping names.

CORNISH: ...Showing off. I get it. And you actually share a birthday with MTV, so happy birthday.

THOMPSON: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: All right, so I've got to ask - for the longest time, people always complained that MTV didn't play music videos. Like, that was the grumpy complaint from a certain generation. What are people thinking now that this classic station is going to be doing basically TV shows?

THOMPSON: Right. I mean, that's part of what's fascinating. And I've been thinking a lot about this. And part of what makes me feel especially old about this announcement is that what MTV considers classic and what is viewed as nostalgia is actually nostalgia for the stuff that replaced the stuff that I was nostalgic for. Nostalgia has this incredible way of not only resuscitating your past, but flushing it away because the new nostalgia cycle is replacing a nostalgia cycle that maybe I feel.

CORNISH: And in the meantime, there has been this widespread interest in looking back to the '90s.


CORNISH: Not just in music. We've seen this in politics and things like the O.J. Simpson trial, kind of revived interest in that. Is this just - like you said, time marches on.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And, I mean, it's interesting. I wrote an essay for NPR, like, 10 years ago on the occasion of MTV's 25th birthday and was talking about wow, are people going to be nostalgic for this stuff that they've got on now? And the answer even then was like, well, yeah, absolutely because what you're nostalgic for is not necessarily the culture itself. You're nostalgic for the age you were at a certain time. You're nostalgic for being 11 years old. You're nostalgic for being 21 years old.

And so MTV, in launching MTV Classic, is certainly trying to recreate that feeling as much as it's trying to reuse its old programming. Now, the question, of course, is what is MTV ushering in now? Other than the - like, the Video Music Awards, which are very culturally relevant when they happen, I'm not sure what in MTV programming is really clicking with people the way this older programming was.

CORNISH: NPR Music's Stephen Thompson, thanks for coming in.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.