Sunday 1st August 2021 marks forty years since MTV launched with an opening sequence comparing its innovation, playing musical promo videos around the clock, with the Apollo 11 moon landings.
But that innovation has long since evaporated, just as the words “Music Television” has from under its logo: MTV is now a parade of reality shows, a genre admittedly pioneered by them with 1992’s “The Real World,” its original programming shunted off to automated sister channels which, in the UK, includes names like “MTV Hits,” “MTV Base,” and the infuriatingly tautological “MTV Music.”
The usual explanation given for this shift was the advent of online streaming of video content from around the 2000s, initially with MySpace, and especially with YouTube. This fits with personal experience: I only had a direct subscription to MTV from 1999 to 2002, and what non-musical shows there were numbered few: there was “Jackass” and “The Real World,” but “The Osbournes,” the show that precipitated the shift away from the music, had not launched yet. Whenever I saw MTV after then, the character of the channel had moved away, although watered-down substitutes like TMF and Viva existed for a while.
However, it was when watching “I Want My MTV,” a September 2020 entry in the A&E Network’s “Biography” series of documentaries, that I began to realise why this shift has happened, and why MTV is no longer a part of it. Towards the end of a feature-length look at how young TV executives attempted to start a revolution in television on a miniscule budget, and how it struggled to convince record companies to make videos for their songs, the documentary concluded that the channel’s audience wanted to see itself on television, not just have somewhere that catered to them – this is perfectly reflected in the reality shows that followed like “Jersey Shore,” “My Super Sweet 16,” “The Hills” and “Catfish.”
What became clearer to me is that MTV had begun as a creative outlet of one, which has now been supplanted by a multitude of outlets. The initial videos shown on the channel were often by bands that were proactive in creating their own videos, adding individual style to a genre sprouting from the necessity of providing a stand-in if the artists could not appear on a TV show in person: I knew that The Police shot their video for “Message in a Bottle” in a dressing room between engagements, but I did not know that Devo turned down stand-up ads of themselves in shops to use that money to shoot the “Whip It” video. The most surprising of these was REO Speedwagon noticing the potential of MTV before their record company, readying videos of four songs in time for its launch.
Add in to this the ever-changing stream of channel idents, left to the freedom of animators and designers to create as they wished, and the message was clear: if you had what MTV was looking for, you stood a very good chance of appearing on it. The sense of ownership generated by the slogan “I Want My MTV,” created as a campaign to get cable providers to sign up to the channel, was only needed for those wanting to sit back to watch the results.
One genre of songs that has disappeared from the UK charts has been the comedy record, which I argue is because the impetus to create something like this is more easily completed through the mechanics of placing the song, or the video of the song, onto social media or YouTube, instead of submitting it through the traditional route of record companies and record pressing plants – the faster you can get something out, the better, especially while the joke’s still funny.
If that immediacy can now be applied to anything creative, so why wait for it to funnel through the established structures of network television before it can be seen? No wonder we went elsewhere.