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The ratings for this year's MTV Video Music Awards are way up from last year

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The ratings for this year's MTV Video Music Awards are in, and they're way up from last year. Tuesday night's telecast featured performances by some of the biggest stars in pop, hip-hop and Latin music.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "2023 MTV VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS")

SHAKIRA: (Singing) Oh, baby, when you talk like that, you make a woman go mad. So be wise and keep on reading the signs of my body. I'm on tonight...

MARTÍNEZ: En Barranquilla, se baila asi. That, of course, is Shakira. Here to tell us about the VMAs and what they mean for MTV is Stephen Thompson from NPR Music. Stephen, what'd you think of the show?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I thought it was, actually, surprisingly great. I don't necessarily always...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter) Wait, why were you surprised? Wait, why were you surprised?

THOMPSON: (Laughter) I don't mean to express too much surprise. I mean, I think, going into the night, everyone expected it would be a huge night for Taylor Swift. Not a huge surprise. She's in full juggernaut mode these days. She's had a long relationship with the VMAs. She won nine trophies the other night, including Video of the Year. What I think was a surprise, though, was how effectively the whole night worked as a package overall, how effectively the telecast brought in young stars like Olivia Rodrigo and Megan Thee Stallion, and also showcased big up-and-coming names in Latin music like Peso Pluma and Karol G, as well as big names in K-Pop like Stray Kids.

But then on top of all that new music, you also had a lot of, I think, really well-chosen nostalgia. You know, you played Shakira at the top. She won the Video Vanguard Award, played a great medley. You had another medley of Hall of Fame kind of hip-hop stars celebrating hip-hop's 50th anniversary. You even had the members of NSYNC showing up. To me, the whole show hit a sweet spot between Gen Z favorites and Millennial nostalgia. And I think MTV did a nice job making sure people were sharing it and experiencing it and reliving it on social media.

MARTÍNEZ: And I wonder if Gen Z knows what MTV stands for, Music Television.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, there's this idea that MTV used to play music but doesn't anymore. I mean, is MTV still relevant in the music biz?

THOMPSON: Well, I think for one night a year, that night being the VMAs, I think it is. MTV is still a brand that matters. You've still got Taylor Swift showing up to collect all those awards. All these huge stars perform. All the winners seem genuinely happy to win. But MTV occupies a strange space in the music business the rest of the year. You look at a lineup of MTV programming in the days following the VMAs, and it's pretty much three shows over and over again. It's "Catfish," it's "Teen Mom," and it's a show called "Ridiculousness," which is, like, internet videos. And none of that is music, as you suggest.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Nothing new, though, right? I mean, MTV has been home to "The Real World" and a bunch of other shows that aren't music. That's been going on for a long time.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's right. I think what jumps out, though, watching the VMAs is how much potential the network still has to be a force in the music industry. Even though YouTube is where people watch music videos, there's still a space for MTV as a curator if these VMAs are any indication.

And what's shocking to me about MTV is that it's mostly abandoned two pieces of original music programming that have proven audience interest. One is "Total Request Live," which ran from 1998 to 2008. They've brought it back a couple of times with rebrands and offshoots, but it's never really worked. And that show, in its prime, had live performances, live interviews, big crowds, other ways to channel audience enthusiasm. And I'm amazed they've basically given up on it. The other one is "MTV Unplugged."

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, yeah.

THOMPSON: That show still exists, but it's pretty much just one-off shows and specials. And when you look at the early history of "MTV Unplugged," it was a phenomenon.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Those albums sold millions. They won Grammy Awards. In many cases, they're still considered classics. And it's wild to me that MTV isn't the centerpiece of the network's programming. You've got that name brand. You've got access to all these artists. I mean, I'm not advocating for someone to come in and compete with Tiny Desk concerts, but it is wild to me that MTV has been around for 42 years and it still, to me, just has so much untapped potential.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Stephen Thompson is a writer for NPR Music. Stephen, thanks.

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

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