MTV: The Infobeast Turns 15

Faux-leopard carpeting covered the floor. The walls were decorated with maroon-velvet wallpaper. Around each window was a golden frame. And, at the back of the Choose or Lose bus, across a broken-tile table from MTV newsbabe Tabitha Soren, sat the candidate. They called this broadcast Bob Dole Raw.The interview was revealing: Dole was obviously uncomfortable, almost annoyed, with the questions Soren asked, which focused on hot-button topics meant to tell young voters a lot about a man who wants to lead the country. Is homosexuality wrong?"I think so," Dole answered quietly, without an ounce of conviction. "I believe it is."Does he think he's too old to be president?"There's a feeling out there," Dole answered lamely, "that maybe there is one more shot for my generation -- that we did make a big difference in the last 50 years, whether it be in Korea or Vietnam or whatever."It was one of the year's more interesting media happenings. The interview, which took place last January, provided an early hint of the Dole character flaws -- cold, cranky, and out of touch -- that have come to haunt him in the '96 campaign. Even more striking, though, was the fact that Bob Dole was there at all. He was clearly uncomfortable, but he also knew that a sit-down with Soren has become almost de rigueur for a serious presidential challenger.MTV is preparing to celebrate its 15th birthday -- it went on the air with "Video Killed the Radio Star" at one minute past midnight, August 1, 1981 -- and it's amazing how far the channel has come. From a tiny cable enterprise that once helped English haircut bands break into the Top 40, it has grown into a worldwide media monster that knows few boundaries. Its reach -- from Minnesota to Prague, from music to politics -- grows every year. This week, with the release of Joe's Apartment, it even breaks into the movie business.DELIVERING THE DEMOEven in the beginning, of course, MTV wasn't about music: it was a marketing venture. Advertisers had long been hungry for a way to reach 14- to 29-year-olds, a notoriously fickle demographic with plenty of untapped spending money. MTV founder Robert Pittman's great inspiration was to use music videos to "deliver the demo." The beauty of the plan was that the videos themselves were advertisements, and record companies were happy to provide them free. In a sense, MTV was, according to Rutgers political thinker Benjamin Barber, "the first of the shopping networks."The effects showed quickly. Record sales, which had been slumping since their 1978 disco-era high, rebounded. Hawkers of pimple cream, orange soda, and boom boxes flocked to the station. The kids were watching, and those who weren't knew they wanted their MTV.MTV also pioneered a new visual world, as record labels poured more money into videos, and as MTV's own producers became more adept at art-directing for their demo. Now you can describe something simply by saying "it looks like MTV" -- and everyone knows what you mean. Quick, almost strobelike cuts. Rich, exaggerated colors. Jiggling cameras. Blurs. Multiple images. Extreme camera angles. In short, sensory overload.As early as 1984, it was clear that MTV style was becoming mainstream. Miami Vice premiered that year, with a shiny, stylized look and long breaks in the action for moody rock reflections. (It was originally going to be called MTV Cops.) Even Ronald Reagan's '84 re-election campaign ads were infused with MTV style: glossy fades from one image to another set to triumphant, patriotic music."It really is a huge revolution," says Mandy Grunwald, Clinton's advertising director on the '92 campaign. "You actually have to watch old newscasts, old commercials, to understand how much things have changed visually, because we're all so used to it."The "revolution" has been more than visual. MTV also popularized what might be called a montage sensibility. Instead of linear storylines (think Michael Jackson's "Thriller"), most videos offer an explosion of images that are thematically, but not logically, linked. With so much happening at once on the screen, it's very common for the video to flash rapidly between several simultaneously developing storylines (or should we say "image lines"?). It's a world of compression and speed, a world where you see only the highlights -- and often you see them all at once.That sensibility has spread. You see it in commercials all the time, and not just ads on MTV. You see it on even the most staid programming, like the Olympics: the opening graphics crackle and pop; some corporations sponsor a video short that fades in and out of the day's most emotional highlights, set to music. And in Hollywood, the "summer blockbuster" has long been moving in the same direction. Audiences seem less and less to mind serious storyline problems (Independence Day comes to mind) as long as they get big special effects; sharp, testosterone-driven one-liners; and no lulls in the action. It has developed into a kind of opera that jumps from aria to aria without any connecting narrative.But at 15, MTV seems much less radical now than it did during the '80s. That's not just because so much of the rest of the media has adopted its style. MTV has also become much more like a traditional television station, evolving from music television into a "lifestyle channel" with all the television forms: sitcom, comedy, game show, sports, drama. Half of its programming between 7 p.m. and midnight on a typical weekday has no music videos at all. "The story of MTV in the '90s," says Steve Stark, a Boston writer who is completing a book on television's most influential shows, "is that it has been much more influenced by the rest of television than the other way around."Mostly, what this has meant is that MTV sucks. Given the station's media savvy, it's amazing how bad its programming has become. There was The State, MTV's sorry attempt at sketch comedy. In Singled Out, MTV's take on The Dating Game, contestants find their perfect match according to breast size ("Cranberries, Blind Melons, or Smashing Pumpkins?") or commitment level ("just a fling" or "wants a ring"?). Then, of course, there's The Real World, now in its fifth season of relentless voyeurism and gratingly literal-minded soundtracks. And every year, Spring Break proves that MTV's imitations can be even more tired than the real thing.For mind-numbing badness, though, it would be hard to beat a recent Saturday afternoon when the station aired episodes of Road Rules -- essentially The Real World in a cross-country camper -- for seven and a half hours straight. Perhaps the only hope for salvaging any entertainment from that marathon might have been a drinking game: everyone drinks when we learn a lesson about getting along with others.ON THE BRIGHT SIDE...To be sure, MTV's metamorphosis has not been all bad. MTV Unplugged (where artists play acoustic sets), Yo! MTV Raps (which brought entire genres of black music out of the underground), and, of course, Beavis and Butt-head have all had their moments. The days of overt racism -- MTV featured virtually no black artists in its first two years, and it refused to play Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" -- are over. And for those willing stay up past midnight on a Sunday for "alternative" videos, 120 Minutes breaks some new ground.MTV's forays into politics have been mostly unobjectionable. Last election, they teamed up with the music-industry group Rock the Vote to register young voters and convince them to go to the polls. That year, after two decades of decline, the youth vote actually increased, from 37 percent in 1988 to 44 percent in 1992. MTV was one of the key "alternative media" venues (along with the likes of Arsenio Hall and Larry King Live) that candidate Clinton went to when he felt the mainstream media were not giving him enough attention. This year, though, MTV probably won't have that kind of pull, mostly because there's no appealing insurgent candidate to rally the youth vote around. The station is still a presence, though, with its Choose or Lose bus zigzagging across the country; it also hopes to register half a million voters by September.But MTV has lost many of the fans who were tuning in primarily for the music. In spite of efforts like 120 Minutes, says Paul Carchidi, of Brockton-based Rage TV, "they just don't break new bands." Carchidi's Friday-night video show, which airs locally on Channel 38, is a kind of backyard insurgency dedicated to music, especially new music. And with so much less "M" at MTV, Rage is not the only outlet eyeing that territory. Recently, the Canadian-American partnership MuchMusic has been pushing into the US market. Then there's the Box, a Miami-based cable station that plays only viewer requests. And the Nashville-based Z music channel, which plays only upbeat music. Indeed, in a tacit admission of how much the mother station has transformed, MTV is launching M2, a channel that it promises will return it to its video roots.Perhaps the best way to understand MTV's changes is in evolutionary terms. The station has adapted to meet its driving goal: delivering the demographic to the advertisers. MTV executives discovered that more-traditional programming -- dramas, soaps, and so forth -- brought a stable and reliable audience that registered better in the Nielsen ratings. Advertisers are willing to pay a premium, in other words, for prime placement in The Real World.In some sense, MTV has become the perfect beast for its media environment. In an age of the remote channel selector, competition is even fiercer: it's easy to leave what you're watching, and with the profusion of other channels, there are plenty of places to go. MTV's flashy, compressed, sexy style puts everything up front, encouraging the wandering viewer at least to pause. Its longer, lowest-common-denominator television programs encourage a decent-sized crowd to stick around, and give it a presence in the TV listings. Add to this the still-lively MTV logo shorts, which remind viewers that the station is cool. And, finally, there is the occasional news item or public-service piece, providing the perfect veneer of credibility in a cynical age.All this, and virtually every second is an advertisement for something -- be it hair spray, a song, or MTV itself. "It's television culminating in its natural ideal," says Barber."If MTV hadn't done it," adds TV critic Stark, "somebody else would have."THE HUNGERIt's a beast, at 15, with an ever-growing appetite for pop trends to sell its product. MTV has refined the art of hunting down fads -- in fashion, music, or otherwise -- chewing them up, and then spitting them out once they've been digested. There is a certain democratic spirit to the process; everyone from New York City to the Iowa countryside can wear flannel, or a silver shirt, or whatever the latest thing may be. But there is also something claustrophobic about the MTV world, where so much of the environment has been vetted by the machine.The beast also devours raw image. Steven Daly, co-author of the pop-culture compendium alt.culture, tells of a friend who was working for a music-video production company: one of her assignments was to rent videos of all of Peter Greenaway's films and then fast-forward through them in search of images to steal. That's a perfect metaphor for MTV. It exhibits flashes of creativity, but mostly relies on a kind of cultural vampirism; images are cycled and recycled until they are exhausted. "Anything that moves gets used up," says Daly. "It's depressing."And MTV's hunger for new viewers has taken it across much of the planet. There is MTV Europe, MTV Latin America, MTV Brazil, MTV Asia, and MTV India. MTV now has more than 235 million viewers in some 70 countries.The, a global survey of young people's attitudes, found that television, not surprisingly, is one of the most important "leisure activities" among teens worldwide, and that "music television" is a key part of the phenomenon. Those who watch MTV videos, the study found, consume more "teen" commodities: more Walkmans, sodas, and "personal-care products." And they all consume the same name brands: Levi's, Nike, Sony, and so forth.But it's difficult to assess the broader effects of MTV. Now, it's not as though a few music videos, or an episode or two of Hard Copy, will addle your brain for life. And there's nothing wrong with a little hedonism. But there is good reason to think that this new, improved kind of television is not improving the culture.We all know that TV is inclined toward soundbites and superficial treatment. That's why watching the news on television is more fun than reading your average paper. And television in general is edging out other, more thought-provoking media. Attention spans are dwindling.But there is a deeper, more disturbing problem. The montage sensibility that MTV perfected and let loose on the world is based on images, not words -- on emotional reaction, not thought or the comprehension of logical narrative. There's nothing wrong with this as an approach to making art; indeed, it is appealing. But it has become a dominant mode of communication."That's not good for the kind of deliberative consensus-building and the arbitration of differences that democracy is about," says Barber, whose latest book, Jihad Vs. McWorld, will be issued in paperback next month. "Democracy is about the word, about the objectivity of the word, about our capacity through communicating in words to reach agreements about areas we disagree on, and to broker and adjudicate our differences where they can't otherwise be resolved."It doesn't take a media maven to see that as a society -- as a planet -- we are moving away from the reasoned debate that the word encourages. Replacing it is a world with great production values and a snappy soundtrack, but less and less substance. It's a world where Maureen Dowd can write in the New York Times without shame that Dick Lamm shouldn't run for president because he is too earnest.Television in general, and MTV in particular, preaches a pathological self-absorption. Even MTV's voter-registration drive, admirable as it is, cannot separate itself from the context in which it was created: if you don't vote, you -- not society -- will lose out. The message is incessant: don't think about the problems society faces as a whole, because your needs are too important. You want bright colors, something new, something tasty. Be impatient. You have a right to be entertained. Now here's something we think you'll really like, something sexy, brought to you by ...And all you are left with is the power button, which seems a truly feeble defense against the bright world beyond.Choose or lose.SIDEBAR: MuchMusic gets into the trenches with MTVby Ted DrozdowskiAfter a little more than 18 months in the US market, MuchMusic USA, a spin-off of Canada's 12-year-old MuchMusic channel, has scored 4.5 million American cable and satellite viewers -- people who, according to the MuchMusic party line, no longer want their MTV. A partnership between the Rainbow Programming division of Long Island-based CableVision Systems and a Toronto group called Chum City, MuchMusic USA -- with its emphasis on rock and live performance -- is the first viable competitor MTV has encountered. And MTV's August 1 launch of a new all-music M2 channel seems a direct response.We spoke about the competition with Dennis E. Patton, senior vice-president and general manager of MuchMusic USA.Q: What differentiates MuchMusic from MTV?A: MuchMusic USA is all music all the time. No Beavis and Butt-head, no Real World, no grinding, no dating shows -- it's music, music, music. Also worth mentioning are the live, spontaneous, and interactive pieces of the channel. Anywhere between eight to 13 hours a day are broadcast live, which I think affords some really unique programming opportunities and, for the music lover, some great product they'll see nowhere else. We've had everyone play -- from Melissa Etheridge to Ruby to Bush, to name a few.The other piece is the interactivity. We communicate with our viewers -- our viewers are network participants, really -- via email, via the Web, via fax, phone... Our VJs may ask a question. We have a show where we look for viewers' opinions on different videos, so we actively solicit input.Q: Are you reaching for a different audience than MTV, somewhat older than its teen market?A: We are competing, I believe, for the 18- to 34-year-old, primarily, and then, secondarily, for the 12- to 18-year-old. I think we are looking for the music lover, the person who has an eclectic taste. So, to that end, where MTV has really abandoned the music lover, we fill that void. It is a more sophisticated audience, and it skews a little bit older than the MTV audience -- I think they say their target is 12 to 25 now, or that is what their research is showing.We did a little bit of research in the US. We asked people, if they could have another channel -- for sports, classic movies, old TV series, whatever -- what would they like to see. The number-one answer among this 18-to-34 group was music.Q: These days, that's a very cynical group. Have you encountered cynicism? You know: "Here's another corporation out to co-opt us and our music?"A: No. I think that there is a hungry audience for our product. MTV, I think, lost a lot of its viewers because it changed its course somewhat. It's doing what it does in a terrific way, but it really did disenfranchise some of the music-fan viewers. The response that we get, via the Web, via letters, is overwhelmingly positive.Q: Where would you like MuchMusic USA to be in five years?A: We'd like to have more than 20 million viewers. We're just now in the process of introducing our brand. We would like brand awareness and recognition, and we want to be a force in the hearts and souls of music lovers across this country. It's more than business here; it's doing what we do in a way more passionately than anybody else and getting to the soul of it. You know how American Movie Classics takes its niche and does it really creatively and with more passion? When you turn on AMC you know you've got a feel of the golden years of Hollywood there. That's the premise that extends into MuchMusic: to do our niche, and do it more passionately than anybody else.Q: Do you think that M2, MTV's new all-music channel, is a direct response to you?A: Yeah. MTV is boasting about how inexpensive it is for distributors to do their M2. By doing live television for eight to 13 hours a day, we commit a tremendous amount of resources. Our goal is to get very involved with our distributors in promotion, so folks are aware that we are around. We want the music lover to know that we exist, but I think that was a competitive move on MTV's behalf. At the end of the day, though, I think the product is what will speak for itself, and I feel very good about our product.

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