With the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” so began MTV in August 1981. Moments later, the video for Video Killed the Radio Star aired. It was the first music video shown on Music Television (MTV). Now, more than 25 years later, I wonder, as the song goes, was there a “day the music died”…. can someone tell me, has the internet “Killed the Video Star?”
When MTV first hit the airwaves in 1981 it was revolutionary, edgy…. borderline counter culture… It was the dream alchemy to capture the attention of its twelve to twenty-five year old target audience.
For its first 6 years, using a format somewhat adapted from Top 40 radio, MTV carried almost exclusively music videos – most a similar kind of somewhat crude, rough around the edges, under-produced material to that which now litter the pages of Internet video networks. The grainy concert clips, the saucy, crude displays, they were the antithesis of the rest of broadcast TV. That was part of why they were adored and appreciated: They were new, they were different, and they were bold.
Eventually, as the MTV brand grew and globalized, siblings were brought to the family in the form of new channels and new kinds of programming. Like an older child, slightly neglected because of the needs of its baby brothers and sisters, the music video moved to a place of less prominence.
One sibling that came along was reality TV. Catching a trend starting first in Europe, MTV innovated with reality programming before it was a buzzword (The Real World started in 1992). MTV brought edgy, original not-for-children animation too (Beavis and Butthead anyone?). They didn’t predate the Simpson’s (which first aired as shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show) but they did help lay the ground work for shows like South Park or even the Family Guy; long before either found a time slot.
MTV also gave a stage to things musically different, from rap and hip hop, to the Headbanger’s Ball to even live acoustic music which proved wildly successful in the form of the MTV Unplugged series.
Through the years, the 80s, the 90s, even the start of the new millennium, like a child staying rebellious through its teen years, MTV largely held a loosening grip on its edge. Eventually the grip broke. MTV has started to feel over-produced.; less original. It’s like a child coming into adulthood, struggling to balance newfound responsibilities with the vestiges of youthful rebelliousness that still cling to its soul.
Through its effort to come to know who, or what, it is, MTV (e.g. Music Television not MTV Networks which includes all their other properties from Nick to BET) struggled with ratings and audience retention. In statements following an earnings announcement earlier this month LINK, the company confirmed that the TV audience was watching the channel less. For several years rating growth hasn’t broken out of the mid single digits. Viacom (MTV’s parent) even took a $56m charge on its books, and let a lot of people go, to restructure.
That struggle doesn’t seem a surprise. The heart of MTV was music and the music’s been sounding more and more like AM radio in a High Definition era: when the music does come through, there is lots of static and lots of talk. Change happens, like it or not.
Back in the heyday, at the core of much of MTV’s programming was what we now call micro-chunk video. Short, easily digested clips of music and humor; video custom tailored for the instant-gratification generation. Today, it’s that same kind of video that is now becoming ubiquitous online. It’s ironic, the very kind of innovation that helped establish Music Television to begin with is now killing it off micro-chunk by micro-chunk.
Today, the very age bracket that MTV is focused on spends more of its time online than watching TV. They have more ways of seeing videos or hearing music than anyone would have imagined 20 years ago. They interact with their friends through instant messaging and online social networks. They increasingly read news online. Their patronage made YouTube a billion dollar company. Their future spending habits are something marketers salivate to influence. In school, even, their more savvy teachers routinely use internet tools and even sites like YouTube as teaching aids.
(And even with non-music program, MTV is struggling. Where MTV once shined with original programming and buzz-reading foresight that hit the pulse of its audience like a laser, today, their once-upon-a-time, innovative flair has begun to falter as bad shows disappear and copycat programming reproduces the better ideas (Fear Factor (2001) was arguably inspired by MTV’s Fear (2000), more than a few reality programs from The Simple Life to Big Brother took part of their inspiration from shows like The Real World (1992) and Road Rules (1995)) .
Insult to injury, the music video has become commonplace. TV often shows them as a form of station break, or between segments of shows. The micro-chunk format has become filler, an easy way to fill a few minutes in a broadcast program. It’s commodity. The novelty is gone.
The writing is on the wall, I mean, the music is on the radio. No, I mean: the video is on the net: The future of MTV is no longer music, and it’s definitely not the television music video format. The target audiences for that once core programming are increasingly lured away whether it by to MySpace (which was started with music fans in mind), or to other forms of entertainment. To fight the shift, MTV Networks is itself changing. It too is moving onward.
Mika Salmi,, the founder of internet video and game company Atom Entertainment (which MTV Networks acquired last year for $200m) is now president of Global Digital Media for MTV Networks. Though he once worked in the music industry at EMI, he made his name with short form (micro-chunk) Internet video at Atom. It’s same kind of short form (and not necessarily music) format that he’s chasing into the future and Viacom, MTV Networks parent company, is following his lead.
MTV is increasingly moving online. The television form of the music video is gone. Considering Music Television itself was founded on the convergence of other forms of entertainment: music and video. It seems only fitting that a new convergence should steal its throne.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no doubt about the certainty of MTV’s future. MTV Networks isn’t going anywhere …. but the Music in the Music Television may have become too far damaged to save; and frankly, even the Television part of the name may have numbered days.
Is Music Television dead or on life support? … I wonder.
It’s a sad fact, but I’m afraid “I Want my MTV” will be playing in the background at museum exhibits in the not too distant future. Max Headroom and Beavis & Butthead will live on in cyberspace and in memories.
So, to the television music videos of my youth, I’d like to say: “Thanks for the memories and rest in peace.”