Has MTV Lost Its Appeal?

Described as a "train wreck," "incoherent" and "weak" by gossip bloggers and TV critics, this year's MTV Video Music Awards has many people wondering whether the longtime popular cable network has completely lost its appeal.

The ratings for the VMAs over the past few years have steadily declined, but noteworthy events like 2003's kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna, and a celebrity-studded red carpet were elements obviously missing from the latest VMA installment.

MTV programming isn't what it used to be, pop culture experts told ABCNews.com, but then again, neither is the entertainment industry.

Viewers have many more options for entertainment, and no longer rely solely on MTV, making the audience even harder to impress and the seats even harder to fill with celebrities who are spread thin across various outlets.

"[MTV's] biggest problem is that, in 1981, they were the only game in town, there was nothing like them," said Bob Thompson, pop culture guru and professor at Syracuse University.

"But that bird has flown. In the 80s, if you were a kid, MTV was where you went," said Thompson. "Now, kids have Comedy Central, Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network — there are so many other places providing entertainment.

"We're kind of waiting for the big VMA moment, the kisses, and that sort of stuff," he said. "I'm not sure that we saw that sort of stuff [this year]. What is it that you do to make the VMAs have the kind of juice and voltage that it had years ago? I'm not sure there's an answer to that."

MTV representatives were unable to be reached for comment Monday regarding the show's success.

Timberlake: 'Play More Videos'

Justin Timberlake, who took home four awards, including male artist of the year, may have the answer. He mentioned twice during the show that he thinks MTV should play more music videos and fewer reality shows.

"We don't want to see the Simpsons on reality television," said Timberlake, referring to Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, both of whom had popular reality shows on MTV.

Since MTV premiered in 1981 and played the first-ever music video, "Video Killed the Radio Star," reality television programming — sparked by the success of "The Real World" — has taken over as the main source of revenue for the network.

"I don't think MTV is ever going to reach the cultural heights where it was in the 1980s," said Thompson. "I would be looking for the next 'Real World,' or the next 'Super Sweet 16' — I don't think I'd be looking for the next music video. What makes these cable networks work is a few good hits. Nothing is the same as getting a big hit that everyone is talking about."

Timberlake's pleas for the return to the 80s, experts say, is something MTV executives will have to consider when they try to rebound from the dismal performances and attendance of this year's VMAs.

"MTV has been having an identity crisis for years," said Johanna Piazza, an entertainment reporter for the Daily News, who covered the VMAs. "It's essentially an outlet for reality TV programming, and they have to figure out where their identity is going. Do they want to go back to their roots and be a music television provider? If I had to guess, they'll stay with reality TV."

"The 'Hills' girls were the one brand that MTV can still count on to bring in viewers," said Piazza, who said she thought the VMAs were the worst she's ever seen. "They were probably the biggest MTV celebrities they had there last night."

Overall, some critics said this year's show was also less glamorous than years past, set at the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas, rather than more upscale locales like New York's Radio City Music Hall.

"In the 80s and 90s, the VMAs were really elaborate, and the amount of money spent was truly extravagant," said Phil Gallo, associate editor of Variety, who covers music, and has attended several of the awards shows in the past.

"Anyone who picks up the show that would go in a venue like Radio City, and then moves somewhere new, shows there's a lot of promotional considerations going on, and a lot more barter than outlay of cash," said Gallo.

"Like everybody in the entertainment business," added Gallo, "they want to see how they can do everything as cheaply as possible."

Gossip Alone Proves MTV Is Still Cool, Some Say

Celebrity bloggers were universally disappointed with the show, and blogged furiously throughout the night to log all of the action — or lack, thereof — at the awards show.

"It was sort of a really choppy schizophrenic program that wasn't exactly the kind of historic Super Bowl-like event that MTV was going for," said Moe Tkacik, editor of the popular gossip blog Jezebel, who live-blogged the VMAs.

"It's hard to say MTV is irrelevant or uncool, based on those horrible three hours of programming," said Tkacik, "but it shows that things like 'The Hills' are what's going to keep them relevant."

"I was just sitting there confused," said Maura Johnston, the editor of Idolator.com, who also live-blogged the show. "It was a train wreck from the beginning to the very, very end."

For some, the fact that so many bloggers and mainstream media outlets are interested in the VMAs at all shows that MTV hasn't lost its spark completely.

Even before the VMAs were over, headlines reflecting Britney Spears' lackluster performance were plastered on gossip blogs and news sites, garnering comments from viewers, eager to see what everyone else thought of the show.

The kind of cult following that MTV still enjoys — albeit more for drama-filled shows like "The Hills" than for new musicians — is what keeps them intact, experts say.

"I didn't think it was tremendously exciting, and the days of the lesbian kiss and Howard Stern coming down from the roof are hard to reinvent," said Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W Public Relations, who has worked with celebrities like Diddy, Pamela Anderson and Snoop Dogg.

"It's tremendously sexy — just not the sexiest, but people are always going to watch it, and it's still going to be a scene," said Torossian.

"I think they were successful because, honestly, the MTV Music Awards are really all about trying to get publicity and hype," said Lisa Timmons, who blogged about the show on her site, the Socialitelife.com.