Table of contents
2. The history of MTV
3. MTV as a powerful gatekeeper
4. MTV’s screening process
5. Influence on MTV from outside groups
6. Interview with Dave Robbins
MTV – an “all encompassing mediator of popular culture” (Goodwin, 1992) or as the Washington Post once put it “perhaps the most influential single cultural product of the [eighties]” (McGrath 1996, p. 8). A trademark that has become a synonym for modern television, fast moving pictures and even a certain lifestyle. ‘MTV generation’, ‘MTV-like’, ‘I want my MTV’ etc.
But MTV is more than entertainment for teenagers and music with colorful pictures around it – It is not only the world’s fastest growing network but also a powerful gatekeeper. It influenced traditional cable television and revolutionized the advertising industry. Whoever makes it onto the playlist of the network can expect his CD sales to skyrocket and his concerts to be sold out. With thousands of bands releasing hundreds of records each year, of course some kind of selection process has to take place. But who makes these decisions? What role does the record industry play? What are the criteria for a successful (and suitable) video that airs on MTV? Is MTV making its own rules or are there also pressures on the network from the outside?
This paper tries to find some answers to these and other questions about the exciting and influential cable network. Its role as an powerful gatekeeper for the multi-million music industry will be examined as well as its strong influence on the content of songs and video clips. Many has been written about MTV, so finding appropriate literature wasn’t really a problem, although not all of it was always up-to-date. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in contact with some MTV executives. In the last chapter, however, an interview with radio veteran Dave Robbins from CBS Columbus can be found, who has some interesting views on the cable network. One should nonetheless bear in mind that he is more or less sitting on the other side of the table and works for the competition.
2. The History of MTV
MTV got on the air exactly at midnight on August 1st, 1981. The first video that was aired was ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles and of course that choice wasn’t unintentional. The concept of a 24-hour channel dedicated only to music videos was a revolutionary one, considering that there weren’t too many music videos around at that point of time. Only few (mostly British) bands had discovered this medium as an art form and produced small film clips to their songs. Also came the arrival of MTV in an era shortly after the ‘great depression’ in the music industry in 1979 – although nobody would have thought that it would prove itself as one of the remedies against it (Denisoff 1989, p. 1; 54).
Most insiders, however, see January 1983 as the ‘real’ launch of MTV, because it was then that MTV got into the cable markets of Manhattan and Los Angeles. These markets were very important, because now many potential advertisers could actually see the network and MTV was finally present in the two big media centers of North America and received much more attention nationwide (Grossberg 1993, p. 51). Another indicator of a new era for MTV is the fact that Billboard – the most important magazine of the recording industry - started printing MTV’s video clip rotations at that time (Denisoff 1989, p. 96).
After that MTV became increasingly successful and revenues skyrocketed. Advertisers like Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, Levi’s and American Express found out that MTV was the ideal vehicle to reach young and trend-setting demographics. Record companies also recognized MTV’s potential to influence the style and taste of the younger generation and got more and more interested in MTV’s concept of ‘All music, all the time’. Before that they were hard to convince that music videos can be as interesting as a live performance on TV (Matzer 1996, p. 48).
In the course of 1985 MTV’s Nielsen ratings continued to drop. MTV complained that its target audience (12-24 years) was underrepresented in the Nielsen sample, but finally took steps to prevent the numbers from declining even more. The playlist was cut down to 80 clips per week and focused more towards the old rock format while the Adult Contemporary elements that had gained influence were moved to VH-1 (Denisoff 1989, p. 193, 238)
In the following years, MTV gained a loyal following, partly because of its quick adoption of emerging music trends like Hiphop or Alternative music. Again and again MTV was accused of racism (Denisoff 1987), sexism (Kaplan 1987, Lewis 1990) and payola (Banks 1996) but neither these critics nor other networks trying to compete with MTV were successful in stopping its triumphal procession in the 1980s and 90s.
Today MTV is available in over 63 million U.S. households (over 270 million worldwide) and has several international spin-off channels like MTV Europe, MTV Asia or MTV Australia. In the U.S. a new channel called M2 was launched – a kind of ‘old school MTV’, focusing more on airing video clips than on the half-hour non-music formats MTV had got to rely on over the years (‘The Real World’, ‘Beavis & Butt-head’, ‘Singled Out’, etc.).
But MTV also has huge plans for the bright digital future of television: On June 30, 1998 MTV announced its first deal with a digital cable operator for its series of new digital channels called ‘The Suite’. The U.S. consortium Telesynergy agreed on distributing up to 10 new music-video channels in markets such as Toledo, Denver, Wichita and Columbus (Hay 1998, p. 8).
The new channels available in some markets right now are MTV ‘X’ (featuring hard rock/heavy metal music), MTV ‘S’ (Latin music), VH-1 Soul (R&B), VH-1 Smooth (Jazz and new age) and VH-1 Country. ‘The Suite’ also includes MTV, VH-1 and the free-form channel M2, other spin-offs such as MTV ‘Indie’ (featuring Independent/Alternative music) are also planned (Hay 1998, p. 92).
But MTV doesn’t confine itself to the television screen: In its latest move, the network announced plans to enter the online music scene and e-commerce. The company is planning to spin off its online music venture into a separate publicly traded company within the next nine to 15 months. The heart of the new project will be an e-commerce-oriented interactive music channel that will market merchandise in areas like books, CDs, videos and concert tickets. In a deal with Liberty Media MTV bought the music Web site operator SonicNet, which owns six dfferent music-oriented sites – ion exchange for a 10% stake in MTV Online, the new company to be spun off next year (Peers 1999).
3. MTV as a Powerful Gatekeeper
In today’s media landscape one can find a lot of different ways how music releases are advertised and promoted: In clubs, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, in motion pictures or even on the Internet. Yet music videos still appear to be one of the most important, if not the single most important one of these different means (Banks 1996).
 Getting into these markets was mostly an achievement of the heavy ‘I want my MTV’ campaign, which was launched to convince cable operators to carry MTV and which featured artists such as John Cougar Mellencamp, Sting, Pat Benatar and others (Denisoff 1989, p. 82; 95)
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