I WANT MY MTV: Where did the “M” for “music” go?

The foundation of MTV as a “mood enhancer” and the replacement of music videos for reality TV-shows in the recent years.

I WANT MY MTV: Where did the “M” for “music” go?

In contemporary societies, the media is not only considered an entertainment or a source of information, it is part of human life and how humans socialize.

The media that people consume says a lot of who they are. For instance, political views are fairly reflected on the political views of the media outlets consumed. Media also influence interactions of humans on their daily activities. Think, for example, on how much of the topics on your daily conversations with friends or acquaintances are related to media or on how media influences current debates on social and political issues. As much as media seems inseparable from people’s life, it’s closely related to contemporary history, which is fairly reflected in the media.

Mass media and mass popular culture is assumed to be commercially motivated and is difficult to determine whether it reflects audience interest or intentionally shapes and manipulates them, according to the interest of those who produce it.

Celebrities are the myths of this time and many memories people has come from a song, a movie or even a TV channel.

Traditionally, aspects such as religion, family or work defined people’s identities, but this has gone in favor of different aspects such as leisure activities, consumer lifestyles and, specially, mass media. The media is partly responsible, furthermore, on how leisure or consumer lifestyles are defined. It is a big part of people’s identity, with several commonalities produced from shared experiences through mass media. It also defines collective imagery and memories: celebrities from the media are the myths of this time and many memories people has come from a song, a movie or even a TV channel, all different kinds of media.

As much as the economical system we live in (capitalism) needs people to identify themselves as consumers (“what we buy says a lot of what we are”), the economy needs people to be identified with the media outlets they consume to more accurately advertise their products on this specific media outlets. For this reason, marketing and advertising research were introduced during the early 20th century: both as ways to maximize and rationalize the consumer habits of the society. Audience is considered by the media both as a consumer (of the media itself) and as a commodity that is sold for profit to advertisers as their potential target.

On Media Making: mass media in a Popular Culture,  there’s a little reference to MTV: Robert Pittman, businessman and one of MTV founders, defined the original MTV (a 24-hour music video channel) as a “mood enhancer”, referring on how music affects people’s moods and also the power of the media, specially of TV, which for years have being shaping the time and space where societies develop the relations according to the schedule, for example, of their favorite TV-show. Nonetheless, this power is currently shifting from TV to electronic devices used to access Internet.

This paper aims to analyze how MTV started the so-called “music video revolution” to end up as we know it: a media outlet full of gossip and reality shows aiming to great controversy, where music videos nowadays constitute a little portion of the content. Was this a matter of business or a response to audience demand? Did MTV just follow the evolution of their audience and their (changing) interests?

To understand MTV’s strategy on the programming and why it abandoned the music videos it was originally known for, the origins of this channel should be analyzed:

  • Why it was produced?
  • Whose (economic) interest it respond to?
  • What was its targeted audience?
  • Did it change as MTV rejected music content?

MTV was launched in August 1, 1981
, as a commodity, a new media product for a new media market: cable television. According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, MTV was a new media product conceptualized by Warner Communications in partnership with American Express, the credit-card giant founded in 1850. Together, they formed a fast-growing media corporation committed to “identify new markets and new technologies”.

Warner Amex Cable Communications, the resulting company from the partnership of Warner and American Express, had two divisions: technology and programming.

Warner Amex Cable Company build local cable systems across the United States, mainly in suburban and rural areas, and Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC) was committed to supply programming to these new cable television systems. WASEC launched The Movie Channel (movies), Nickelodeon (programming for children) and, eventually, MTV (music videos).

On its early development, the cable television was not accessible in big cities such as New York (headquarters of MTV) but gave big city ideas and imaginary to more rural areas of the United States. Many of the witness of its launch quoted at I Want my MTV, considered MTV was sort of an early social network: teenagers gathered in front of TV (not all the families could afford cable television) and in high school corridors friends were commenting the latest video from Duran Duran.

MTV staff had little or no experience on the TV industry. Programmers came mainly from radio and adopted the technique of “narrowcasting” where stations don’t aim to the broadest possible audience but target specific demographic (youth, 14-24 years old) and sell this audiences to potential advertisers whose products are aimed to this targeted market.

MTV was the only cable TV channel programing music 24/7 and had to create an industry to be provided with music videos. Sometimes, music videos were taken from European bands, were music labels already produced promotion videos, but MTV had to encourage American music labels to produce music videos, inspired on film industry, television or advertisement.

On its early stage, the new music video industry was of trial-and-error, trying to find its own language. Music producer Todd Rundgren refers on I Want My MTV to the “eclectic variety of videos – on the origins of MTV – because bands weren’t yet making videos specifically for MTV. After MTV was recognized as being a great promotion vehicle, things for formulaic: smoke bombs, scantily clad women (…)”.

Since its foundation, MTV had the function of merely entertainment, to provide amusement, diversion and the means of relaxation. However, any new form of media, even if its primarily manifest intentions are to mere entertainment, still has latent objectives that intend to produce a certain effect in the society. In this case, encourage consumerism within a capitalist society. At the same time MTV produced the barely new commodity of music videos, it was producing a new category of cultural product that established a new visual language of vivid colors, urgent movement, sexuality, nonsensical juxtapositions, provocation, impact, etc.

Music videos developed its own language: Lip sync, dancers, glamour and sex. Controversy on music videos made its way on lifting new artists that may have not great songs but showed an elaborated image and a provocative discourse.

At I Want My MTV, music businessman Al Teller says: “videos accelerated the artist-imaging process dramatically”. Music became visual and so did the music artists. Consequently, music history shows many examples of music artists that became famous and have stayed in business till the date by paying lot of attention to their image. Madonna is a paradigmatic case, since “Like A Virgin” (1984) she kept a lot of attention on her image (music videos, clothing, live performances…) and has being able to stay on the entertainment industry for almost 30 years now.

After MTV, music history was filled with stories on how bad music videos could ruin a whole music career, despite the songs quality. Billy Squier unintentionally buried his successful career as a rock singer with the video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), directed by Kenny Ortega and considered one of the worst videos of the history. The manliness society implied to rock music and artists like Squier was questioned and demolished by a gay imaginary brought by Ortega: the effeminate dance moves and a pastel-color tone drastically cut most of the fan base Billy Squirrel earned in the early 80’s with his previous hit songs.

In the early history of MTV, Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” (1981) is told as the first controversial music video. The British band wanted to breakthrough America and thought a provocative video was the way to go. At I Want My MTV, Duran Duran’s John Taylor admitted, “There’s no plot to ‘Girls on Film’. The only plot was to set up some sexy scenes with girls. You don’t need a plot to make a cool video. You just need something that catches the eye, that is sexy or amusing”. The video served its purpose and the band reached American audiences.

Besides audience attention, controversies also lead into concerns from strong advocacy groups that had great influence on politics and directly affect the media. For instance, the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), an organization founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of American politician Al Gore, was committed to have a parental control over the contents of media and particularly MTV and music videos. They accused the music video industry of producing what was called “porno rock.”

PMRC had direct influence over politics, most of their members were married to congressmen or senators, and, finally, there was a congressional hearing to discuss the issue. Tipper Gore testified: (…) “Graphic sex, sadomasochism and violence, particularly toward women, are rampant on MTV”. The complaints from PMRC had a direct impact over the music industry, who started labelling controversial albums with a “Parental Advisory” sticker and over MTV, that created a formal system of review and issued a policy against excessive sex or violence on their content. However, the history has proved these self-regulations were pretty flexible.

“You don’t need a plot to make a cool video. You just need something that catches the eye, that is sexy or amusing”
– John Taylor (Duran Duran)

The sexualisation on music videos and MTV content in general has done nothing but increase since then. Nowadays, we still have videos, such as Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (2013), that raised great controversy for the sexual explicit images of the videos and the misogynist lyrics.

MTV developed a genuine and new visual language for the music videos but also followed stereotypes that already existed on the media, particularly on television, so audiences could clearly identify them.

This is what they did to cast the hosts, also known as VJs or video jockeys. MTV media executive, Robert Pittman, said: “We need a black person (J.J. Jackson). We need a girl next door (Martha Quinn). We need a little sexy siren (Nina Blackwood). We need a boy next door (Alan Hunter). And we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair (Mark Goodman). They all had roles to play”. And they got them. They have being known as the 5 original MTV’s VJs and even published a book about MTV on this early stage of development.

In other TV channels, the media executives generally tried to keep their successful hosts as a guarantee to keep the audience ratings, but this is another convention challenged by MTV executives.

The original MTV’s VJs stayed on the channel for almost five successful years but when they decided to leave, MTV executives had no problem on letting them go and hire new hosts: Kurt Loder, Karen Duffy, Adam Curry, Tabitha Soren… MTV executives considered the ‘star(s)’ were not the hosts but the channel itself, and relied on it to maintain their audience.

Historically, people identify themselves with celebrities, styles or subcultures and follow them tirelessly. It also happens with a product or, in this case, a TV-channel. MTV loyal audience liked it as a brand, as a product, and they felt appealed by its content and values, the language that was used.

MTV was established as a brand that audiences followed regardless of the hosts. This started a tendency where technology (cable television) had more relevance than its content (music). As for McLuhan’s theory of “the medium is the message”, what was important on MTV was the channel as a medium, the content (the message) changed over time.

Besides MTV, the new tendency reached our time and other brands to a point where, for instance, a media technology brand (Apple) sold 275 million units of their music player (iPods) through September 1st, 2010. These numbers greatly outweigh the benefits that many musicians earned on their whole artistic career.

As for McLuhan’s theory of “the medium is the message”, what was important on MTV was the channel as a medium, the content (the message) changed over time.

What many analyst wonders now is that if music videos were the leitmotiv of MTV why did they stop playing them? It was basically a matter of money. The “music video revolution” or ‘MTV Golden Age’ is located in the period from 1981 to 1992, from its launch to the date when reality TV started on MTV (“The Real World”).

When Warner got the idea of MTV, media executives doubted advertisers would be interested in something as innovative as a 24-hours music channel and how the audience could be kept on an hour of music videos programming where content shifted from a music style to another every time.

To attract audiences during largest periods of time, MTV executives started producing shows non-related with music. In 1988 there were shows on MTV about movies (The Big Picture) or comedy (Half Hour Comedy Hour). An internal memo to MTV staff regarding the new strategy of programming was written: “Music videos aren’t the novelty they once were”, it said. MTV had new rivals, other cable music TV channels launched during those years. Despite the aggressive changes over programming, the memo ends: “music must always be the base” of MTV.

But, indeed, it wasn’t. On 1989, the programming completed with the launch of fashion TV-show, House of Style, hosted by the supermodel Cindy Crawford, and a young Jon Stewart started a successful talk show on MTV in 1993.

“Music videos aren’t the novelty they once were” (MTV memo, 1988)

Did it work? Yes. Abbey Konowitch, head of programming on MTV from 1988-1992, explains the success of this aggressive change over programming: “By 1988, any thirty-minute program got a better rating than the highest-rated half hour of videos”.

In the structure of media such as MTV, the audience is understood as a number, referred to as the rating, and its value was determined by the value advertisers gave to these potential consumers, consequently, making MTV more or less profitable.

The economy of scale, the cost of producing each unit of a product compared to the number of units, was lower for MTV and their new original TV-shows. Producing a single music video involved high budgets where for the same budget that a single TV-show, several episodes of the same show could be produced. The rate of profit for these shows was higher than it was for most of the music videos MTV broadcasted and (sometimes) executively produced.

MTV had to split profits with the music labels, artists, etc. when producing music videos. Nevertheless, the original shows it started were more profitable because they were exclusively owned by MTV, and it didn’t have to share these profits. This is one more reason why MTV abandoned music videos and shifted from being merely a broadcaster to become also an independent TV-production company.

Despite the unconventional overlook of MTV, aimed to attract their young target, it shouldn’t be forgotten that MTV operated within a capitalist economy and it was founded by a media corporation (Warner) who invested large amount of money on launching the channel and, even owners changed (Viacom since 1985), the bottom line objective for MTV is being always the same: made the TV channel economically viable and, chiefly, profitable.

On MTV, the profit came from ad revenue. The higher audience ratings were, the more ad revenue MTV executives got from advertisers, that is how television industry works since its foundation, even the case of cable television is slightly different: part of its exchange value also comes from cable operators that contract this channels to include them on their offer. However, under economic criteria, MTV focusing on the shows with higher ratings is understandable.

But not everyone agreed on this new strategy. Pittman left the company at the same time it started the new programming strategy. When he was asked about it at I Want My MTV, he said: “If I have something the consumer likes, my job is to convince the advertiser to advertise in this, not to change my programming to what the advertiser wants”.

Seems difficult to conjecture if MTV would stay in the media business all this years keeping its original identity rather than changing it, as Pittman wanted. Taking into account the audience rating results is hard to say if audiences got tired of music videos or MTV actually wanted to detach itself from music industry and shift to a more varied (and profitable) content.

“If I have something the consumer likes, my job is to convince the advertiser to advertise in this, not to change my programming to what the advertiser wants.” – Robert Pittman, MTV founder

Since 1992, music videos became almost non-existent on MTV, not as they once were. Only thematic shows scheduled late at night allowed music videos: Club MTV (dance music), Yo! MTV Raps (hip-hop), 120 minutes (alternative music), etc. It was the end of the ‘MTV Golden Age’ or what was known as the “music video revolution”. Budgets for music videos decreased, directors moved to film, music labels had a greater interference over the decisions for the video and, generally speaking, there was a lack of good ideas for music videos. To top it up, the same year started what has being, nonetheless, a successful and profitable line of programming: reality TV-shows.

The Real World launched on 1992. It was a reality TV-show with a group of people, living together in a house surrounded by cameras.

Seems ironic that the most profitable line of programming for MTV was conceptualized due to the lack of money: after all the new and successful (non-music) TV-shows, MTV wanted to produce their own original soap opera but there was no enough budget to afford script writers, costume designers, etc.

This is how reality TV started on MTV: lacks of budget to produce fiction made them start recording reality and the formula worked out well. The Real World made everyday people the new rock stars and new shows followed till today (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, My Super Sweet 16…). Reality TV-shows have proved to be successful not only on MTV but in other television channels worldwide. TV producers saw how profitable reality TV shows were and produced shows such as Big Brother or Survivor, among others.

“(MTV) is still a network for and about youth culture, whether you’re talking Jersey Shore or a new Lady Gaga video” – Tony Di Santo, MTV’s director of programming (2009-2010)

Tony Di Santo, in charge of programming at MTV from 2009 to 2010, defended the current status of the channel at the book I Want My MTV as serving the tastes of a specific target of audience: “(MTV) is still a network for and about youth culture, whether you’re talking Jersey Shore or a new Lady Gaga video”, he said.

Before criticism was raised over MTV for the kind of content the channel provides to youth or the ideas it promotes on sexualization of women or trivialization of drugs use, a topic raised criticism during the first years of MTV: racism.

During the early years of the “music video revolution” there was no music from black artists on MTV, at all. This changed when MTV embraced the successful solo career of Michael Jackson, with its peak on the worldwide premier of the music video for “Thriller”, and finally settled when MTV accepted a new music genre genuinely black, hip-hop, as part of its programming, first showing few black artists (Run DMC, Public Enemy…) and finally with its own TV show: Yo! MTV Raps.

To defend themselves against recurrent accusations of racism, MTV staff argued that their commitment (on an early stage) was to play rock videos from white musicians, adding that that was what their targeted audience was interested on. Even music from black artists was already successful product – with all the artists from the record company Motown since 1960s, for instance – MTV could argue to deny it because the audience black music had was not interesting for the potential advertisers MTV wanted. The market could be racist then, not just MTV itself. Quoted at I Want My MTV, professor Andrew Goodwin said “(MTV) denied racism, on the grounds that it merely followed the rules of the rock business which were, nonetheless, the consequence of a long story of racism.”

“The rules of the rock business which were, nonetheless, the consequence of a long story of racism.” – Andrew Goodwin

Popular and rock music in the early 80s, especially in the suburban and rural areas where MTV first operate, came primarily from white music artists and MTV showed that. It can be argued that they started showing music videos from black artists when their music was popular among their targeted audience. In matters such as racism, historically, MTV has become a representation of the encompassing view of pop culture and its evolution, being a source of information to study changes on the pop culture in the United States for the past 30 years.

The focus of MTV into social issues or, for instance, hunger at the African continent when Live Aid concert took place, reflects the fact that the power of popular culture and the mass media is able to promote change within society.

MTV history exposes the changes of society and popular culture. When it embraced theories of social responsibility of the media, it became a powerful tool towards social change, aiming to portrait a representation of society and its various opinions and, at the same time, involve in social issues their targeted audiences.

At the same time MTV started giving up music videos to produce its own programming, a part of it went to shows aimed to produce social change or bring awareness to social and political issues. The immersion of MTV in social issues, explained at I Want My MTV, was originally an idea of Judy McGrath, MTV’s head of programming. McGrath earned the trust of MTV’s media executives for the success of new shows such as Yo! MTV Raps.

For the presidential elections in the United States on 1990, McGrath wanted MTV to be actively involved on the election process, aiming to increase political turnout among young people, which was outrageously low. In the United States, the 26th amendment to the Constitution in the United States gave 18 years old the right to vote but only a half of the population voted after the amendment passed in 1971. By 1988, the percentage eroded to a third.

MTV programmers started a new show, Choose or Lose, hosted by journalist Tabitha Soren, which explained the political process on a new and fresh manner youth could rely on.

The idea worked well, participation among youth increased that year and elected president Bill Clinton publicly recognized the influence MTV had on his victory. Critics argued MTV’s political contents historically had a bias in favour of the democrats (Clinton). MTV replies democrats were more accessible, as they probably understood better the influence MTV could have among youth turnout.

MTV kept airing its show Choose or Lose during US elections periods till the date. On 2012 elections, it replaced the title for Power of 12. Political advertisement is allowed on MTV since 2008 elections. The social activism on MTV reached not only politics but also embraced some other social issues. The MTV Staying Alive Foundation, raised awareness on HIV prevention; Fight For Your Rights brought awareness on violence, crime or drug issues in the US and, now, most of the social activism on MTV is under the umbrella of MTV Act, who also run campaigns to bring awareness on same-sex marriage, cyberbullying, etc.

As much as critics miss the time when MTV played music, it should be recognized that the current MTV maintained a great influence over youth generations and, even sometimes that meant producing role models out of non-educated people (celebrities from shows such as Jersey Shore), it also used its power of influence towards positive attitudes and social changes, as exposed above.

Nowadays, besides the lack of music videos, most of the criticism over MTV comes, year after year, on the MTV award ceremonies and the controversial performances they include. MTV has a list of annual award ceremonies: the MTV Movie Awards since 1992, the MTV Europe Music Awards since 1994… but the most controversial, for sure, are the Video Music Awards (VMA), celebrated since 1984.

These big media events, like the VMAs, always carry out lots of press coverage and commentaries on the media. In the latest edition, on August 2013, the performance of a suddenly grown up Miley Cyrus (21 years old), who is struggling to erase her image of a clean idol for kids (Hannah Montana) brought lots of controversy.

Different groups were concerned with the image of a young woman in a highly sexual attitude, which could be imitated by her fans, even younger girls. Media corporations, religious groups or feminists, among others, criticized it with equal fervour. In the interviews after her performance, Cyrus didn’t regret her attitude on stage. She claimed to be fully aware of what she was doing.

MTV’s documentary Miley: The Movement shows the behind the scenes and the previous weeks to Cyrus’ performance on the VMAs 2013. On these series, Cyrus seems acknowledged on how much media coverage had all the previous controversial performances at the VMAs. According to her generation, she refers to Britney Spears and her performance dancing with a snake at VMAs 2001 or kissing Christina Aguilera and Madonna at VMAs 2003. They all follow the idea that a controversial performance on MTV is more memorable.

Cyrus has done nothing more than learning from the school of controversy of MTV and the idols of her time. Britney Spears, at her turn, defended what Cyrus did  but the controversy on the VMAs is not an exclusive of Cyrus or Spears and it is, indeed, as old as the awards ceremony itself.

The first VMAs in 1984 already set the controversy that characterized all the posterior award ceremonies. To be awarded is what matters the less in these ceremonies. To provoke commotion and controversy with an outrageous performance or dress gives publicity, good or bad, and that seems to be the main objective of most of the artist who performed at the VMAs.

Madonna already taught how to be controversial to the future generations of pop idols in the first VMAs (1984). On a weeding dress, she performed “Like a Virgin” and that was the most or even the only appearance remembered from that edition. Britney Spears learned that from Madonna, she co-started her performance in 2003, and Miley Cyrus learned that from Britney Spears.

As much as each generation of MTV viewer might considered the programming of its time better or the music it was shown more interesting, current generations (and critics) sometimes seem to forget that controversy it’s on the DNA of MTV since its early videos (Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film”) and followed and exposed what each generation considered controversial. For instance, “Girls on Film” could be controversial in 1981 but current viewer might consider it even puerile.

When viewers analyse the media they consume, the values of the society are reflected in this analysis. Is a matter of reciprocal influence, a concept described by the authors of the book Media Making: at the same time media ‘produce’ the values of the society they integrate, society produce the media. It’s a reciprocal process.

Consequently, back to the performance of Miley Cyrus in 2013, as some critics highlighted in their work, the little concerns raised by the misogynist attitude of Robin Thicke, co-starring Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, presents how Western societies still widely agrees on the idea that the sexually explicit attitude of a man towards a woman is more acceptable than the opposite.

The overexposure to information that society lives in nowadays explains why media coverage on the controversial nature of content on a new music video or live performance on MTV is taken as a novelty. Media assimilated it as natural and the lack of context on the media coverage doesn’t allow to put facts on perspective and see that, as it’s being analysed in this papers, controversy on MTV is as old as the channel itself (“Girls on Film”, Madonna’s wedding dress at the VMAs, etc.). This controversy is intended to catch the eye of the very impressionable young audiences that MTV has as targeted audiences and, following the rules governing the music industry, it works: makes music videos and live performances memorable, it gives the artists press coverage, publicity and popularity.

The final conclusions above regarded on how MTV built a controversial reputation and maintained their loyal audience but the main objective of this paper was to analyse the reason why MTV stopped being a “mood enhancer” that played music videos 24/7. About this main question, it’s quite clear that the answer is merely economic: music video industry has a lot to thank MTV, who basically built the industry. They created a new visual language that later moved to film, as music video directors moved to start directing movies, and it has changed forever many aspects of the industry of music and entertainment, that are much more visual now.

Media content on MTV, as in other media outlets, represents and responds to the dominant ideology of the media market: capitalism. Under this profit-driven logic, is understandable that MTV media executive invest in what is being proved to give more profit. If what gives more profit is reality TV-show rather than music videos, the blame is on the audience, the public, whose changing interests MTV reflects.

From a perspective merely economic, music videos also proved to be way more expensive to produce than other forms of television content. The variety of TV shows that MTV started during the late 80’s and early 90’s or the reality TV-shows, that MTV is now better known for, proved to be less expensive to produce.

TV-shows like The Real World or Jersey Shore provided MTV with better audience ratings and, consequently, more profit than most of its music contents and this is why, as Duran Duran’s founding member Nick Rhodes said at the book I Want My MTV, “at some point the ‘M’ in MTV changed from Music to Money”.

This post is an abstract from an essay I wrote in January 2013 for a course on Media Sociology at Ghent University (Belgium). The essay is based on:

MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution
(R. Tannenbaum; C. Marks. 2011, Dutton Penguin)

Media Making: mass media in a Popular Culture
(Grossberg, L.; Wartella, E.; Whitney, D. 1998, Thousand Oaks.)


Author: Oriol Salvador

Journalist in the age of new media. Pop culture nerd and social media Jedi. Over ten years of experience producing, managing and distributing digital content on online platforms and social media channels.

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