Often we are reminded that Music Television (MTV) is no longer about the music with a few clicks on our remote control (or friends stating ‘Why isn’t it about the music anymore?!’); Jersey Shore, Real World (All X of them), Teen Mom (1, 2, & 3), Guy/Girl Code, and a slew of other television shows aimed at ‘reality’, and rarely about music, flourish on MTV. These shows are mostly comical takes on ‘reality’ but there are still a handful of these shows that are considered dramas (that awful SKINS show for instance). These shows (in my biased opinion) are rather atrocious and provide little more than mild entertainment on a guilty pleasure level – okay Girl Code is solid and I’m a guy. Yet I like the direction MTV is heading, but not necessarily the execution.
So why am I advocating for MTV to not return to the stalwart music network it once was?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Video Killed The Radio Star
MTV came onto the scene in 1981 with MTV co-creator John Lack stating: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!’ Hilariously, the music video for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles (here’s that music video) played directly after the short statement from Lack; it was MTV’s first quick strike at radio. (Note: the music video for ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was actually made in 1979, but was the first music video MTV played on the network.) This was the first introduction of ‘Video Jockeys’ (known as VJs), which were just Disc Jockeys (DJs) that played music, but the VJs played music videos not just music! A clear distinction that MTV made sure the viewer knew.
These VJs and MTV started a revolution in the music industry, an industry (like every other industry it seems) that was normally slow to adapt to change. It started simply enough as just band-made music videos, basic ones at that, which were provided free by the record companies of the artist or band that made the music video. The music videos were just seen as this fun, almost gimmicky product that a band could make to showcase their talent on the television as well as the radio. The first music videos were made prior to MTV’s creation, but MTV helped usher in the popularity of the music video.
The first wave of music videos were barely more than the artist or band ‘playing’ the song while images came across the screen, were the background of the band, or just all over the place in general. These early music videos resembled poorly constructed videos made by high schoolers, but the first foray into a new avenue of music production will always be tricky. Though, The Pretenders did an above average job for the ‘Brass In Pocket’ music video and they should be commended for it – here is that video – yet it is still a basic music video (by today’s standards).
The music industry started to catch up to this ‘MTV thing’ and realized how much potential MTV had to showcase their ‘products’ (artists/bands) on television. These basic music videos led to artists to actually become artists on stage, as well as in their music videos (as their record companies were shelling out the money to make better ones); all thanks to MTV airing the music videos in the first place. Playing these music videos made MTV wealthy since it now had an overwhelming amount of music videos to play, and the viewership of the American youth.
These music videos made money for the network, so MTV rode the music video money train which led to such events as Michael Jackson’s 14-minute ‘Thriller’ video, the rise of Madonna, the Video Music Awards (such a sham now though), and eventually to ‘Live Aid’ – benefit concerts located on two continents with 17 hours of live concert coverage. The music video success also led to non-music programming aimed at teenagers and young adults in the late 1980s. The programming was just as revolutionary, and successful, as the music videos had been for the network.
Though still revolving partially around the music, ‘Spring Break’ was a popular watch in 1985 from MTV that showed the young public could handle other programs on MTV not pertaining to music. In 1987, a quiz show named Remote Control aired. Remote Control is officially the first non-music programming for MTV. Here is a clip of Remote Control and, yes, that is Adam Sandler (he was a recurring guest on the quiz show). MTV News debuted in 1987 as well, giving the young audience a dose of reality in their programming.
American teenagers ate up Remote Control and other programming from MTV; such as YO! MTV Raps (credited as bringing hip-hop into the mainstream of Middle America), 120 minutes, Headbangers Ball, and Dial MTV. These programs prospered, but other than Remote Control these programs still revolved around music. MTV wanted to find perpetual success in non-music programming, as well as music programming. In 1992, MTV brought about one of the more controversial shows at the time: The Real World.
It was MTV’s first step into ‘reality-TV’, but the network was all about pushing into new territory and being the ‘purveyors of cool.’ The Real World (if you don’t know) is about seven strangers living together in a house located in a metropolitan city. The strangers interact with each other daily in various situations, which may lead to conflict, discussion, love, sex, or otherwise. The success of the first few seasons of The Real World can be attributed to the discussion on several topics that were rarely talked about on mainstream television from the point of view of young Americans: prejudice, politics, and sexuality, among others.
Among those topics, the amount of prejudice from castmates normally was on the forefront of the discussions. Joining The Real World was the first interactions many of the strangers had with people of a different race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and so forth – particularly jarring for the young white woman from the rural South in the first season. Some interactions went over swell; others not so much. It was a brilliant way of studying human interaction, even if several of the castmates did make asses of themselves at times.
Next MTV brought us the classic animated series Beavis & Butthead. The duo gave us wonderful lines such as: ‘I noticed you have braces… I have braces too.’, ‘My name is Cornholio!’, and ‘Shut up, Beavis.’ Okay those weren’t their best lines, but whenever I think of Beavis & Butthead I think of Beavis’ heavy breathing. The irreverent animated series inspired similar animated series across other networks. Again, MTV were the ‘purveyors of cool’ and brought in the cool first.
Through the 1990s MTV introduced more non-music and music programming to the airwaves: Total Request Live, MTV2, films, The Ben Stiller Show, Road Rules (a competition version of The Real World), and a litany of other programs. Many programs succeeded, but not all of the programming MTV distributed was successful or even memorable. Nonetheless, MTV was cutting-edge for teenagers and young adults. It was the television station parents didn’t want their children to watch, which made it even more appealing to the young crowd. A wave of change started to sweep over MTV in the early 2000s, however.
Wave of Change
In 2000, MTV introduced us all to the colorful cast of Jackass. Though I love the Jackass series, it marked the beginning of the end for music being the breadwinner on MTV – to make it clear: it is NOT the reason there is little to no music on MTV. MTV realized the potential of Jackass and noticed how cheap it was to make episodes of Jackass. MTV saw this potential and ran with it; with more seasons of Jackass (and films) and more programming revolving around ‘real life’ situations with cheap budgets. Shows such as Next, Room Raiders, Real World/Road Rules Challenge, The Osbournes, Newlyweds, Cribs, and several other shows that had touches of ‘reality’ but were scripted (if not scripted, edited heavily) and cheaply made.
During this ‘wave of change’ there was a bright spot of non-music programming with the airing of True Life. True Life, like the first few seasons of The Real World, became this marvelous television show about human beings living their daily lives, except, unlike The Real World, these people were not put together in a house with strangers, but rather filmed for several days up to several weeks/months living their actual real life. True Life opened the eyes of Americans by showcasing how difficult it is to live with narcolepsy, heroin addiction, the difficulty of coming out to your parents, eating disorders, living from paycheck to paycheck, several unorthodox jobs, and so forth. It helped many Americans understand the pain and difficulty that their fellow Americans were facing on a daily basis; True Life is one of the best shows MTV has ever created. Yet, True Life still helped slowly push music out of the way, regardless of how great the program had become.
Total Request Live had begun to become a shell of its former self. Instead of showing the most popular music videos in the country with minor interruptions, Total Request Live became an audience shouting show with audience members saying ‘Hi to mom’ and expressing how much they loved the artist’s music video that was playing during the playing time of the music video. The music videos playtime started to dwindle as well. The Real World also began to unravel and was no longer a wonderful human study, but rather a platform for belligerent 20-somethings to do whatever they please. Several other successful music-programs were cut, or were relegated to MTV2.
Around this time as well, began the surge of Internet use and music piracy (Napster for those that don’t remember). Though this did not directly have anything to do with the slow decline of music video playtime, it was still quite the mess for the music industry. MTV already had a jump on the music industry, though, because MTV started to adapt/prepare for the future. A network can’t survive solely playing music videos, especially if another network blossoms in that arena, so MTV stuck to its guns and began creating the aforementioned cheap budget reality shows, while slowly pushing music videos out the door. But why was all of this a smart move for MTV, and for us?
Why was this a smart move?
In 2010 MTV changed its logo by dropping ‘music’ from it in an attempt to attract millennials (stupid word), even though music had not been a vital part of the network for over a decade, aside from the VMAs. Music videos can be seen in the wee-hours of weekdays (and possibly weekends), but consist of the same seven or eight music videos with the possibility of a new addition every other week.
Even though I absolutely love watching music videos (even the over-the-top ones), I know that the slow process of eliminating the music video programming was an intelligent move by MTV. Look at the technology we have: in our hands, in our homes, in our cars! We can watch, listen, and create our own music videos now. It takes little effort to find a music video on our phone, tablet, or laptop. YouTube has become the destination for music videos, not television. Why would I go to a channel that has music videos and wait for a music video I want to see instead of going to YouTube and type in the name of that song? It’s simply more efficient to use the Internet to see the music videos we want.
To add to this, where would a person go if they wanted the latest music news? Would that person wait around hoping that MTV would bring them the latest music news, or would that person peruse Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere?
MTV noticed this and has nearly wiped out any music video (or music) content from its channels. It was a wise decision and has been working out for them lately. Yet MTV must harken back to its early days, not with music videos but with programming. As I have stated previously, MTV were the ‘purveyors of cool’ and whatever appeared on their channel was cool no matter what. Now MTV is openly mocked for making programs that are mainly about drama and partying, instead of pushing the boundaries they were once known for in their infancy.
There have been attempts at pushing the boundaries (that awful Skins show for instance, again), but MTV pushed so much in those attempts that it didn’t come off as realistic, or even remotely believable with suspending your belief of the show’s universe. Yet this is still the avenue that MTV needs to pursue in the future for their programming because partying reality shows can only take you so far (and if it takes them far then I give up on television completely). If MTV doesn’t want to pursue ‘cool’ again, then it needs to look towards other mediums to reach the newest generation of teenagers and young adults, or just be passed by like they passed by radio.
More cool, less ‘reality’ please.
(Big props for Palladia, though. Love that channel. And yes I know Skins was adapted from a British show named Skins.)