What in the World Is Going On at the VMAs?

MTV’s annual Video Music Awards are the network’s most well-known television offering. So when it decided to press forward with this year’s ceremony on Sunday, August 30th as a live show — making the 2020 VMAs the first live awards show to take place since COVID-19 shut down events across America — the decision certainly turned heads.

With just days to go, music fans still have no idea what they’re going to be watching.

The VMAs were set to take place at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but MTV abruptly nixed the venue two weeks ago after consulting with local health officials. Instead, performers will pop up in various outdoor locations across New York’s boroughs; MTV and its parent company Viacom have been vague about whether fans will be allowed at these shows, though, stating only that audiences will be “limited.”

Since massive outdoor stages are difficult to keep secret, photos of the set-ups being built have already hit social media. One video of a stage in Greenpoint — which fans have speculated is for Lady Gaga, one of the few confirmed performers — accumulated more than 7,000 views on Twitter in a day. MTV and Viacom have been tight-lipped about safety procedures: The companies did not reply when Rolling Stone asked if the VMAs have protocols in place to prevent fans from trying to get a peek at their favorite stars on show day, and have not released information about the non-performance aspects of the show, either.

Music production experts say that it’s not too early to put on a show of this stature if it can be done safely — but that involves details like online COVID-19 precaution courses and socially distanced stage-building and audio and lighting setups. “The reality is, these kinds of events that are televised are often a shit show without having to deal with COVID, from a production standpoint,” says one backstage expert, who requested to remain anonymous because they are not involved with the VMAs specifically. “I would want proof [of safety] before sending any of my crew members into the field. If there are four stages, will they be sure to have four production managers and four stage managers? Will everybody have the same health training?”

Performers traveling to New York for the event have been declared exempt from the mandatory 14-day quarantine that other travelers face, CBS News reported on Monday.

But the performance slate itself is also a point of confusion for most music fans. While MTV said earlier this month that artists including Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Miley Cyrus, BTS, and Maluma will perform, it has not specified which sets will be live from New York.

Stars Roddy Ricch and J Balvin were once confirmed as performers — but both have since pulled out. Roddy broke the news of his cancelation on Instagram Live, saying that the team “did everything in our power to make this work,” but “due to COVID compliance issues at the last minute we had to call off the performance.” Balvin, who lit up the VMAs stage with Bad Bunny last year, has yet to offer a public explanation. The star, however, is based in Colombia, where international travel has been prohibited, with the only exceptions being for cargo and humanitarian flights, and Balvin also announced that he was recovering from COVID-19 earlier in August.

Other will-they-won’t-they performers include Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Harry Styles, and Taylor Swift, according to various rumors floating around the music industry.

Since this is the first VMAs to occur since CBS and Viacom’s merger in December, the higher-ups at the parent company have a guinea pig on their hands. This telecast is an opportunity to test out a new template for other events — CBS presents both the Grammys and the Super Bowl, for example. CBS even made the decision to simulcast the show on a broadcast network for the first time ever, by adding it to the Sunday night lineup on another one of its channels, The CW. The goal is also to bolster the VMA’s plummeting ratings from past years. While 12.4 million people tuned into the VMAs on their TVs in 2011, that number was halved in 2012, and the figure was only 4.9 million in 2019.

A lot of this has to do with the general decline of cable TV. The number of pay-TV households peaked in 2010 at 105 million and has since dropped to 82.9 million. Countering problems in television land, MTV claims that the VMAs are still successful online: The show garnered 269 million “social/video” views in 2019, which was an increase of 85% when compared to the year before, according to Conviva Social Insights. But if a fan passively watches a 15-second Instagram story while scrolling through their feed, is that considered a social/video view? Reps from Conviva did not immediately reply when Rolling Stone asked about the methodology of that metric.

All told, the 2020 VMAs face significant pressure on Sunday. When MTV hosts the annual celebration at the end of every summer, it’s essentially the one time of year that the network holds relevance for young generations, even if it seems to be clinging to viewership by a thread. (If video killed the radio star, the Internet and its offspring YouTube have gotten pretty close to killing MTV.) But could the show’s many points of novelty — from the return of Lady Gaga to BTS’ highly anticipated first-ever VMA performance to the oddness of airing a live show during a pandemic and its new simulcast — drive interest back up? At least it won’t be long until we find out.

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