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MTV: The Rise & Fall

It was the television channel that kick started a music revolution. Back in 1981, MTV was launched by Viacom Media Networks, with a singular mission in mind. Media Executive Robert W. Pitman had previously devised the original programming format, and on August 1st a new channel was born.

For 24 hours, seven days a week, a group of enlisted VJ’s (video jockeys) would preside over a playlist of promotional pop videos. It was this decision-making process which birthed the channel’s tagline, “You’ll never look at music the same way again.” And they were right. We wouldn’t.

Audio became visual, as the brand new cable channel began to gain popularity. Record labels became aware of how important it was to use artists as a marketing tool, and within months record stores began to sell stock that had entered public consciousness via MTV; as opposed to local radio stations. It seemed that video had killed the radio star, by taking it on at its very own game. August 1981, MTV launched with The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” which MTV states: “…sparked the moment when ‘pictures came and broke your heart.” The first hour featured videos by the Buggles, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, The Who, Cliff Richard, The Pretenders, Todd Rundgren, Styx, Split Enz and .38 Special.

In the channel’s infancy, ‘promos’ that record companies had funded for footage at concerts or for overseas use, made up the majority of MTV’s programming. Blondie, Duran Duran, The Police and Eurythmics are just a handful of eighties acts who massively benefitted from the 24/7 cycle of music promotion. After several years the taste-making VJ’s were forced to relinquish their clandestine role as guest video-jockeys, on occassions, Phil Collins and Simon Le Bon took to the screens to pick their own hour-long playlists. This is a format that many of us are familiar with today. At the time however, it was a television revelation.

Eventually it became more about ‘music entertainment’ for MTV. Music Icons such as Michael Jackson and Madonna took their music videos to even further heights, by sparking a ‘dance wave’in the 1980’s with their extensive choreographed routines, to accompany their tunes. It seemed that the basic music video held not enough entertainment value and consequently, record labels had to invest more and more into these ‘two minute, fifty one’ films. Creating a spectacle that fans and music magazines alike would surely talk about became a goal for many. Case in point: the Thriller dance is almost as famous as the song itself.

MTV showed signs of change in the late 80’s. It was the first music channel to film revelling youths during ‘Spring Break’. Arguing that footage of drunk and disorderly teens reflected the youth culture of its target audience. The channel documented ‘real life’ events through eight-hour long, live slots in combination with miscellaneous live performances.

This isn’t to say that MTV ignored the music side of things. In 1986, they broadcast a show called ‘120 Minutes’ that featured ‘underground’ and alternative rock acts. The short lived programme ‘Headbangers Ball’, played home to all things heavy-metal. Hip hop had ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ and there was MTV Unplugged, which showcased acoustic renditions of songs, proving that, at this point, the channel still had some musical credibility.

The 1990’s saw acts like Nirvana produce artistic videos that aided their rise to fame. Seeing the band’s success, MTV focused on more alternative acts. The end of the 20th Century, saw a shift towards the money making marketing machines of pop princesses, such as Britney Spears and boy-bands like N-Sync. Most of the rock shows were eliminated for a period, on MTV in favour of airing pop videos. MTV had moved into the realm of manufactured music and showed no signs of turning back.

By the mid 2000’s, the channel was only showing eight hours of videos a day. In 2008 it decreased to a mere three hours of music per day. It has been reported that MTV has seen a significant drop in viewers, in contrast to other music stations during a similar period. Perhaps this fall in viewers is due to YouTube and Vevo becoming the go-to sites for unlimited music videos. Why would you sit through a computer generated television playlist when you can make your own out of the extensive archives that are offered online?

While it is easier to demonise the channel for not being ‘about the music’ anymore, perhaps it would be better to consider how few of us now watch scheduled music videos. As audience fragmentation increases so does MTV’s efforts to carve out a new niche. The demise of MTV may have been brought on by itself. By losing their USP to the internet or other distinct channels (who’ve carved out a niche for themselves), MTV are now faced with a question of identity.

Written by India Thomas

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