On AdAge yesterday, Mike Henry laid out the case for why legendary, established MTV should try to acquire young, upstart Vevo as fast as it can. His main point is that while MTV still holds massive sway over the youth audience (thanks in large part to its deluge of edgy original content), a lot of its power to distribute music videos has shifted to Vevo, a digital channel created by three of the record labels themselves. This is a great example of the challenge that all TV networks are going to face, sooner rather than later.
The chink in MTV's armor lies in the last two letters of its name. What is a TV network really? It's a grouping of content (which may, or may not be original and proprietary), filtered and scheduled, then shoved down a particular pipe or set of pipes to reach the audience. The importance of specific pipes is shrinking as people build more and more of them. Filtering is being taken over by the crowd. And scheduling is something that people really don't want, so they're happy to see it go.
What's left? Content. Content providers don't care if their content goes out over one channel or many. They only care about getting it to the largest (or most valuable) audience and monetizing it in the best way. When it comes to music videos, MTV was essentially a middle-man. Like many other middle-men these days, they're feeling the squeeze. For long-term relevance and survival, they have to own the content, either by creating it (which they do a lot of) or by gaining exclusivity over distribution (which is Mike's point).
Meanwhile, viewers will be free and fickle. Where once our only chance to see a particular episode of a particular show was to turn on a single channel at a pre-ordained time, we will now have the power of choice. Our viewing habits are going to continue to migrate to DVRs, VOD and streaming web video, often ending up on completely new "networks" like Hulu, Netflix or hybrids from our cable providers. Any "network" that wants to survive and thrive is going to have to go "all-in" to create original content that viewers want, or buy up the rights to existing content that has long-term appeal (classic movies, etc.).
Whether you're MTV, HBO, Food Network, ESPN or TNT, you'll have to own the content, because you won't be able to own the audience.