Over the years, MTV has been the impish child, the rebellious teenager and the devil-may-care twentysomething.
Now, as it rounds into middle age, the network that brought a cultural revolution to television is making a big bet on nostalgia. In an old Art Deco building in Los Angeles, engineers are feverishly digitizing old VHS tapes filled with live performances and interviews from the many musicians and stars that have graced MTV's studios in the past 35 years, assembling one of the world's greatest libraries of pop culture ephemera.
A network that has been an afterthought, VH1 Classic, is being transformed into MTV Classic, a new home for old hits Beavis & Butt-head, Daria and Jackass and reruns of music shows Unplugged and Storytellers.
MTV Classic marks a major strategic shift at MTV, which has typically shunned its past. Executives wanted to create the next Jersey Shore and Total Request Live rather than relive the good old days. But the network, owned by struggling media giant Viacom Inc, has suffered from falling ratings and a lack of buzzworthy hits.
As MTV strives to reclaim its status as the arbiter of cool for teenagers and young adults, the channel's leadership is beginning to see value in its past. MTV has brought back its news division and ordered its first regular live music series in almost 20 years.
"Part of the reason our brand is powerful is because so many of us still have affection for what MTV is or was or could be," says Erik Flannigan, a former music journalist who joined Viacom in 2006. "There are great things that happened on MTV that are valuable and merit consideration."
Viewership of MTV among the network's target demo has declined at an annual rate of 17 per cent since 2011, according to data from research firm MoffettNathanson LLC. Thanks to drops at its other networks, Viacom has reported lower domestic advertising sales seven quarters in a row.
MTV's past lives on in one place: the Vault, a library of more than 2 million files dating back to the network's inception in 1981. The Vault houses full episodes of Yo! MTV Raps and Total Request Live, as well as footage from the red carpets of major awards shows, behind-the-scenes at music festivals and interviews with major political and cultural figures.
On one recent trip down memory lane, an MTV producer found clips of pop star Bruno Mars dancing as a young child, Donald Trump introducing Eminem and rapper Master P interviewing Star Wars creator George Lucas.
MTV Classic will replace VH1 Classic on August 1 with a rebroadcast of the original MTV's first hour, with a documentary on Total Request Live and an MTV Unplugged marathon later in the day. Movies, concerts and even music videos will also figure into the rotation.
The digitized Vault has already passed a major test. When David Bowie died, MTV executives quickly found a clip of the singer chiding MTV veejay Mark Goodman for the channels' lack of diversity. The video went viral online within hours.