This time around, as the network stages the 25th ceremony set to unfold Sunday at the Paramount Pictures lot in Los Angeles, executives are hoping the show itself will be able to stage that big comeback. Producers are planning to showcase the art of the music video -- the happy collaboration between Hollywood and rock 'n' roll.
Performers including the Jonas Brothers, Pink and rapper T.I. will act out "live music videos" in and around the back lot. Accompanied by a gang of scorned women, Pink will scream the lyrics from her kiss-off single "So What" from a fire escape before shimmying down for an all-out boy brawl, while T.I. will take to the city streets and preach the virtues of excess in his chart-topping hit "Whatever You Like."
The segments will then be cut down into actual music videos for rotation on the channel. Technical categories like special effects, art direction and cinematography, will be re-introduced, but the more superfluous "quadruple threat" and "earth-shattering collaboration" ones have been nixed.
British comedian Russell Brand will host the ceremony.
Of course, this isn't the first time the network has attempted to re-mold the VMAs into something that will land the kind of viewership the show once commanded -- peaking right around 12 million in 2001. (Sliding ratings for the award show only last year began to reverse course, thanks in large part to Spears
But this might be the boldest reinvention yet, coming at a time when MTV's audience is far more interested in "The Hills" than in "TRL."
It could be a sign that music videos are making a comeback of their own -- whether or not they're being watched on MTV. While older viewers wax nostalgic about the loss of a channel devoted exclusively to the format, a new generation of music fans has grown up on a steady stream of music videos thanks to the advent of on-demand platforms like YouTube and MySpace. Some even argue that music videos are more popular now than they were during MTV's heyday.
"There is no question that more music videos are being viewed now than ever before," according to Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne, a company that tracks online media consumption for sites like video giant YouTube.
They might not be watched as much on MTV, but they're big business online. Six of the 10 most-watched clips of all time on YouTube are music videos. Avril Lavigne has the No. 1 most-viewed piece of content in her 2007 video for "Girlfriend," which has been viewed more than 99.5 million times.
"The user-generated content does well, but music videos drive that site," Garland said.
All of it represents not a throwback, but a shift of a different kind for pop culture's water-cooler event. MTV still might make most of its noise by airing reality soaps and dating shows, but music videos are still important, said Dave Sirulnick, MTV executive vice president of multi-platform production, news and music.
"We are there. We are in the music video business," he said, pointing to the new summer series "FNMTV," hosted by Fall Out Boy frontman Pete Wentz, that debuted fresh music videos every week and let viewers discuss them on the show's website. "The musicians we work with are really excited that we've elevated the status of music videos once again, and that's led directly into this year's VMAs theme."
MTV viewers helped choose this year's nominees for the first time by voting on the "FNMTV" website. (Previously, music industry professionals alone voted.) Other nominated performers include Rihanna, Lil Wayne, Katy Perry, Lupe Fiasco, T-Pain, the Ting Tings, Travis Barker, DJ AM and Paramore.
So let there be no doubt about MTV's motives for bringing back Spears for Round 2 this year. It was the fans who helped vote her video "Piece of Me" into the race for video of the year.
"Our history with her goes back 10 years, so clearly we wanted her involved with our 25th celebration," Sirulnick said. "But the audience wanted her to be a part of it too."
MTV hopes the changes can breathe new life into the award show and Sirulnick thinks drawing an audience of 12 million again is within reach.
"It's absolutely possible. The audience is different now, the way they interact with music and music videos is different," he said. "Our job is to roll with that. And that's what we're doing."
If nothing else, there's always the expectation of those unexpected moments.
US Weekly entertainment editor Dina Sansing said they're the reason the VMAs remain the year's big event, bigger for her magazine than even the Oscars. "Who goes to the Oscars? Big Hollywood stars like Jack Nicholson, yes, but you don't get those MTV moments. We're still talking about the Tommy Lee and Kid Rock fight, Britney's last performance -- pretty much every Britney performance."
"That's all about our ability to put the right people in the right place together and allow them the freedom to be themselves," Sirulnick said. " Eminem getting into a tussle with Triumph [the Insult Comic Dog]? We didn't plan that. We put Madonna, Britney and Christina Aguilera on stage together a few years ago. Madonna took it into her own hands to say, 'Well, let me kiss them.' "