It’s strange to think that MTV is now forty years old, but it was on August 1, 1981 that this music-oriented cable channel made its debut. Stranger still, though, is that a channel with “Music” as the first word in its title is not playing music videos any more, and hasn’t for years. So what does the ‘M’ stand for these days?
The channel should have probably been renamed RTV a long time ago, given its dependence on reality shows such as The Real World, and, more recently, “Ridiculousness”, which seems to have been inspired by another MTV reality program, the stupid-stunt show “Jackass.” But for all of us for whom MTV was the place to learn about new music in the ’80s, it may be shocking to learn that we thought of as the golden age of that channel was one big money pit. Robert Pittman, founder of MTV, once admitted that the channel never made a dime of profit in the ’80s. During its first decade, MTV was losing $1 million a year, at a time when that was real money.
Presumably, it was just too easy to switch to another station after any given five-minute video, whereas the reality programming the channel adopted in the ’90s could hold viewers for 30-60 minutes, and, more importantly, bring them back the following week to watch the next episode. This is what is known “in the biz” as “appointment viewers”, and those are the kind of viewers that advertisers like. Other than the debut of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when were video viewers ever that reliable?
But while the economics of the switch to reality tv makes sense, as a music fan, the abandonment of music videos and concert films seemed criminal. Surely MTV could have figured out how to make music pay. Even though videos faded in the late ’80s in terms of being a requirement for breaking new singles, people are still listening to the latest tunes and going to the big concerts, so it seems odd that the MTV execs were unable (or unwilling?) to find a way to monetize music.
What’s even worse is that some of the channels MTV has spun off has also gone through the same music-to-reality transition. VH-1 was once a home for the original MTV viewers; now it only seems to broadcast game shows and reality TV oriented to black viewers. Ironically, the channel Palladia, was once a haven for the kind of concert films MTV would show on a Saturday night. But now that it has been renamed MTV Live, ironically, most of its schedule is now taken up by a segment called “Epic. Awesome. Videos.” which shows music videos that are anything but. So what does the “Live” stand for now?
In general, the channel seems to subscribe the bait-and-switch school of marketing. To echo the words of Johnny Rotten, who surely was an idol for Puck from The Real World San Francisco, “I don’t want my MTV.”