In an era when ratings are drifting downward on most award shows, viewership of the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards was actually up compared to last year, whether measuring by traditional TV ratings or cross-platform consumption.
According to final Nielsen figures, the awards, a pre-show and two on-air replays averaged 3.9 million viewers across 12 Paramount Global cable channels as well as broadcast network The CW. That’s up from 3.7 million for the 2021 awards and associated programming, a gain of 3% year-to-year.
That’s not a huge increase, but it’s an increase, and as such it’s worth exploring. On Tuesday (Aug. 30), Billboard spoke with both of the show’s producers, Bruce Gillmer and Jesse Ignjatovic, to find out what they think were key reasons for the uptick.
Gillmer and Ignjatovic had some lucky breaks in the run-up to the Aug. 28 show, which was held at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. – Fergie’s surprise appearance came together at the 11th hour, Taylor Swift’s headline-grabbing announcement of her upcoming album on the show was a stroke of luck, Ignjatovic’s positive COVID test on the first day of production turned out to be a false positive. (Phew!)
But not everything went their way. They tried mightily to get a Harry Styles remote performance from his Madison Square Garden show to go along with their Bad Bunny remote from Yankee Stadium, but it didn’t happen.
This is the sixth year in a row that Gillmer and Ignjatovic have produced the VMAs together, but Ignjatovic has been a producer on the show for 16 consecutive years. This puts him in a tie with Dave Sirulnick as the producer who has worked on the most VMAs.
Gillmer received his first Primetime Emmy nomination this year as an executive producer of One Last Time: An Evening with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, which is a finalist for outstanding variety special (pre-recorded). He’ll find out if he wins or not on Saturday Sept. 3.
This joint interview with the show’s producers, held over Zoom, was lightly edited for space and clarity.
Billboard: Congratulations on the ratings uptick. What do you think are the biggest reasons for the improved showing?
Gillmer: We were super-focused on putting a line-up together that served the widest demographic. We put a tremendous amount of effort and time into creating a show that would speak to all of the demos – the younger cell, the mid-cell, the upper cell and beyond. … [Our aim was] booking relevant talent, but also paying attention to all demos so we don’t turn off the core audience while we’re trying to speak to the upper end of our demo.
Ignjatovic: We had a very diverse line-up in terms of demographics [and also nationalities]. We had artists from South America, from Europe, from South Korea. Also, we staged the show in New Jersey where there is just an incredible fan base and energy for all of this music.
Many will be surprised to hear you cite the New Jersey setting as a major plus factor for the show.
Gillmer: Everyone expects a big, important, A-level-talent show to be produced from New York or L.A. or sometimes Nashville, but they don’t expect Newark, N.J. The truth is, when you’re watching on your phone or your TV or your computer, how much does the audience really care where the show is being broadcast [from]. On the other hand, when you go to a city like Newark, you have the benefit of much less jaded fans. This is the second time we’ve been there. The energy that those fans put into the show is 50% of everything because that fires up the talent. That energy comes through the screen. It’s the fuel for everything.
Near the top of the show, LL Cool J said that this would be the most ‘diverse and global’ VMAs ever. That wasn’t an empty boast.
Gillmer: This is the first time an Italian rock band [Måneskin] has won a VMA. You had Anitta, Bad Bunny and [J] Balvin all repping Latin America. It was the first time BLACKPINK had ever performed on an [American] awards show. Their numbers were just outstanding. Their performance has got to be over 11 million views, which is insane. [Editor’s note: By Aug. 30, their VMAs performance of “Pink Venom” had topped 15 million views at YouTube.]
You mentioned the challenge of trying to expand the audience without turning off your core audience. I imagine that can be a tricky balancing act.
Gillmer: It’s a very tricky task. We’re fortunate in our relationships and the combined experience of this team. Gut plays into it a lot, but it’s really a matter of when you’re dealing with the core [audience for the show], you know exactly what you got. You’ve got BLACKPINK, Jack Harlow and other acts that play right to the core of the MTV demo. But then you have LL and the Chili Peppers, who are a critical part of the legacy of MTV. Their core focus may not be 18 to 24 year-olds, but the younger audience still knows that these are superstars who are part of the MTV brand who continue to influence talent that they love.
Where does Nicki Minaj fit into this?
Gillmer: Nicki, who was a massive part of the show, checks every box. She’s got appeal to the younger demo, to the mid-demo, to anybody who is susceptible to being infected by energy.
The show entails a lot of planning and strategizing.
Gillmer: We wouldn’t be honest if we didn’t tell you that we had a lot of good fortune, a lot of blessings, a lot of luck as well in terms of timing and things falling into place. One of the things that worked in our favor was the whole Taylor [Swift] situation. We have a long history together, a highly successful history, and there’s mutual love and respect. She was nominated for video of the year and a variety of other awards. She wanted to come. She hadn’t been out in public for months and months and months. Her fans are so intense that just her appearing gives our show a lift. Not only did she appear, she won and she won big. She also chose our stage to announce her new record, which gave us this massive lift coming out of the show. That wasn’t planned. We were blessed to have that.
Ignjatovic: Also the fact that Nicki dropped new music – a No. 1 song going in to the show. [“Super Freaky Girl” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 just days before the show.] BLACKPINK had new music [“Pink Venom,” which enters the new Hot 100 at No. 22] and debuted it for the first time ever in the U.S. Also, the fact that we were able to work with Bad Bunny and bring his concert into the show [was key]. He’s a huge, huge artist. Those were unforeseen blessings that helped us as well.
Jesse, you’ve mentioned the pacing of the show as an important factor. Could you be more specific about that?
Ignjatovic: The way we laid out the show to keep the viewer engaged was key. We sought to make sure that every act [stretch of show between commercials] was balanced. We’re creating a show for the TikTok generation but at the same time trying not to turn off the broader audience.
Bad Bunny was obviously a very big ‘get.’ How did that come to pass?
Gillmer: We had been working on that for months and months. We knew we needed him to have a presence in the show. We knew he had a show at Yankee Stadium the night before our show and a second show the night of our show. So, the question was how are we going to get him in? This planning went on for months and months. The week leading into the show, we hit a huge technical snafu and the performance was in jeopardy all the way up to a couple of days before when things really went our way. That’s the stars aligning in our favor.
Were there any other examples of things breaking your way?
Gillmer: The other sort of favorable wind that we got was about Fergie. She’s at home in California and hadn’t been on our stage or any stage in a long time. Coordinating that whole performance, we had to have a tremendous amount of support from her label, Atlantic Records, from her manager and even with all of that it was a long-shot. That came through at the 11th hour cause all the stars aligned. Almost every big moment in that show could have gone either way.
Ignjatovic: Fergie confirmed two days before; rehearsed at the very last minute. She’s obviously just a pro.
Gillmer: That [pairing of Harlow’s “First Class” and Fergie’ “Glamorous”] our show open. So right from the very beginning we were representing the full spectrum – Jack, the core demo, and Fergie, representing MTV royalty who still obviously can be relevant anytime she chooses. But she plays to a completely different demo. We made a statement right out of the box that this show is for everybody.
Anitta and Damiano David of Måneskin both gave their backsides ample exposure.
Ignjatovic: Historically, the VMAs are where artists, all the way back to Madonna on the very first VMAs, try to push it. There’s something in the water with the VMAs. The thing is, you can’t manipulate it or try to create these kinds of moments. The artists themselves want to come on and make a statement; do something bold and own the night.
You must have tried to get a remote performance from Harry Styles from Madison Square Garden.
Gillmer: That was another several-month saga. Some artists are more open to putting their own personal show out there [than others]. Every artist has a different perspective. Harry was very happy when he won album of the year and a couple of other awards. We were able to get out to him the day of his show and get him to accept. It was nice at least to have his face and his presence in the show. We would have loved to have a live performance from the Garden. It’s just not something he could focus on with 15 shows [at the venue]. We tried. We really wanted it. But you can’t get everything. If we got everything, we’d have had a 14-hour show.
This was your first post-pandemic show. How big of a factor was that?
Ignjatovic: I just think that fans want to come and see music and fans want to participate in this kind of an experience. Everyone’s hungry for that connection; to connect with the other people there and to connect with music. And that goes beyond our broadcast. We’re fortunate we’re in a moment where people can come together safely. We didn’t have any real scares, thank goodness.
Gillmer: We had a scare at the beginning of production – luckily a false scare. On the first day of production, Jesse tested positive. We can’t [afford to] lose any of us. If one of us goes down, we’re in a lot of trouble because we’re a true team. It turned out to be a false positive. … However, for the fans and people in the audience not having to wear masks, and being able to sort of let loose and really fully enjoy themselves was really an amazing sight and really added to the energy of it all.