What happened to MTV?

Bernardo Montes de Oca
February 23, 2021

It's February 8th, 2010, and something subtle happens, so discreet not many people notice. But it confirms the end of an era. And, while the channel continues to exist, that small change is transcendental. This is a brand's capitulation to new tendencies. So what happened to MTV? 

MTV marked generations, set trends, and gave us new ways of enjoying music. It also helped launch some of the music industry's biggest names. But now, music purists repeatedly say that the brand is dead. But, what does this mean? Let's talk about MTV in this episode of Company Forensics. 

MTV Origins

MTV's predecessor was Sight on Sound, a Warner Cable product that consisted of a music channel with concert footage and music-oriented content, but no original music videos. 

In turn, this channel was part of the QUBE system, Warner-Amex's interactive cable television system prototype. Viewers could vote on their favorite songs and artists, win prizes and interact with DJs. Think of it as the predecessor to interactive media altogether. 

But MTV, as we once knew it, was Robert W. Pittman's product, a visionary executive. Thanks to his experience in the music industry, he had come up with an idea to create a network dedicated only to music. 

It wouldn't be any music channel; the total opposite. Pittman knew he had to aim to be anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and have the under-30 audience at his grasp. 

MTV wouldn't be afraid of playing rock songs with the latest and craziest music videos. Its VJs would be young and cool, and the stages would have delirious backgrounds. Pittman even hired the Manhattan Design studio to create the iconic logo. And it was the first step towards making history. But a rocky one. 

MTV is born

"Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."

And thus, MTV was born, just after midnight, on August 1st, 1981. It premiered with the song Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. Those who remember the earliest MTV days could have thought it was a successful start. But, besides an impactful first impression, MTV struggled. 

Music videos were scarce because no one made them because they weren't a thing. So, there weren't many to pass around, and the network had to repeat all its inventory. The VJs often spoke for long periods between videos. Yes, they talked about music, but it wasn't fun. 

And, let's remember that MTV was a cable channel, which was a luxury back then. Not only that, its angsty personality threw off many of the more conservative cable networks. Craig Marks co-wrote the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. Here's how he summarizes society's perception of MTV.

"They thought that MTV was a bunch of coked-up rock and roll fiends, and they were right in a way."

Facing a lack of public approval, Pittman began the "I Want My MTV" campaign. It was a fiery set of ads featuring rock and pop stars like The Police and Mick Jagger, demanding their rock channel. 

If that wasn't enough, the channel expanded its catalog to include more artists and genres, like rhythm blues and disco. And, amongst these was Michael Jackson with his trendsetting videos. Jackson was obviously a hit, followed by other huge names, like Madonna and Guns N' Roses. Executives loved the numbers, and fans loved the music. But, it was more than that. It was a culture change. 

Record stores near where MTV was broadcast noticed an increase in these new artists' sales. In contrast, stores far from MTV saw little movement because radio wasn't broadcasting them. Marks even credits MTV with helping Bill Clinton gain political traction with younger audiences, as he made frequent appearances on the channel. 

But, though MTV had become a beacon for new talent, the network would only be dedicated to music for a short while. 

MTV subtle and not so subtle changes

Thanks to Pittman's ideas and the network's turnaround, MTV became the first basic cable channel to become profitable. Brands were glad to pay for advertising, as long as the sales were rising, and they were. But there's a caveat we'll explore later. 

Tempted by MTV's success, in 1985, entertainment giant Viacom Inc. bought it from Warner, and that's when everything started changing. 

Videos were now segmented by genre, like Headbangers Ball for heavy metal, Yo! MTV Raps for Hip Hop and 120 Minutes, for alternative rock. These segments did work. After all, they were the platform for other upcoming artists. Think about Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and rap icons like Dre.  

But it marked a shift in MTV's identity. By 1987, the birth of other programs like MTV News, Remote Control, House of Style, and Club MTV, showed that the network was willing to venture into dance, fashion, and games. 

Even Pittman, the one who helped MTV transcend, couldn't cope with these changes. He left in 1987 after being unable to buy the network. Viacom's aggressive MTV expansion continued, with its own awards, the Video Music Awards, a spinoff called the MTV Movie Awards, and the Europe Music Awards. So, MTV was unstoppable but looked beyond music to do so. 

 

MTV goes mainstream and hits the pop charts

 In 1992, MTV launched its own reality show, Real World. It was a "real" depiction of young people's struggles with sexuality, drugs, depression, and partying. The show took the world by storm and further cemented MTV's identity as a vehicle for social topics and the occasional controversial episode and, occasionally, music. 

Now, let's be clear. There was music, and it was huge, with artists like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. It also featured metal bands like Pantera and White Zombie and gangsta rap like Tupac and Biggie Smalls. Videos had become events in themselves. Artists wanted to outdo each other, and renowned directors were eager to direct them. 

And yet, by the mid-90s, most of MTV's content wasn't about music. It was so distant from music that the network launched MTV2 in 1996 to "go back to its roots." MTV2 began just like the original version but changed to genre-specific blocks and eventually yielded to reality shows and gossip, just like MTV. 

 Take the teen pop craze of the late 90s. MTV knew it had to be a part of it: The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, these were huge. So, pop video rotation increased, and other genres saw less exposure. 

MTV opened its Time Square Studio and launched Total Request Live. Thousands of screaming fanatics flooded the streets, but the show transcended music. Carson Daly, its likable host, delved into celebrities' lives and made the show more like a talk show than a music show.

And it drew millions of viewers. But it also outlined the debate: were music networks really about music? After all, MTV was doing all it could to survive as a brand, not as a music network, and the numbers showed. By 2008, MTV played only 3 hours of music videos per day, from 8 hours in 2000. 

 Billboard magazine wrote:

"MTV has these non-music shows on for the sake of immediate ratings. There will always be that tension between the music industry and MTV when MTV doesn't support music."

Reality is the new music

In 2008, MTV was losing its grip on music. TRL was canceled, with some blaming it on Carson Daly's departure. But, in reality, TRL had degraded itself to pranks, celebrity interviews, and unlikeable hosts that, more than anything, reflected MTV's entire identity. 

And that was because younger viewers had found somewhere new to enjoy their music, instead of their TV. It makes perfect sense. Music now came from computers, iPods, and downloading albums. 

So, MTV rushed to replicate some of its successful products, like Real World. In came shows like Teen Mom, The Hills, and even car shows like Pimp My Ride. By the way, up until 2017, this was one of the longest-running shows in TV history. The reality show era had begun. 

Former MTV VJ Adam Curry told CNET that it was the best decision MTV ever made. Plus, he revealed some interesting facts. Remember when we said that, in the 80s, MTV was the first cable network to show a profit? Well, music wasn't their primary source of income. It never was. But cringy reality shows seemed to work. In 2011, MTV was a $4 billion-a-year business. 

But it was fighting a losing battle: MTV had very little to offer against the new wave of consuming content. Instead of waiting for celebrity fashion and controversy at the VMAs, fans followed their favorite celebrities on social networks. 

Then, there was the rise of YouTube as a platform for consuming music. Let's take Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns and Roses, a video made famous by MTV. In Guns N' Roses' YouTube channel, it has 1.2 billion views. No standalone platform could even come close to competing with this. 

What happened to MTV was a constant a struggle to survive. They had tried it all, from rock to teen pop. From reality shows to more reality shows and whatever Jersey Shore is. But, could it continue surviving? 

What happened to MTV? 

If you tune into MTV, you'll see hours upon hours of its star show, Ridiculousness, and other reality shows. But, it can bore you out quickly. And that's the problem. Every generation is different: some remember MTV for Nirvana's legendary Unplugged concert, while others for Fear Factor and TRL. Every once in a while, it's logical that someone asks: is MTV dead? 

And the answer is in its own history. As a music concept, it died in the 2000s. As a brand that epitomizes cool, some say it died around 2009-2010 when it failed to reinvent itself. 

Especially when we see that MTV has tried several times to create apps, revamp its social networks, and capture more fans. But, which fans? Certainly not 16-to-24-year-olds. They have TikTok and the attention span of a goldfish. 

So, when we see this brand try to remain cool, we can't help but cringe. The revived MTV News hopped on the YouTube music news way too late and has only 100 000 subscribers on YouTube. Overhauled ideas like Teen Mom and Cribs have a moderate following, but they fight against giants like YouTube and Netflix. 

 And so, we return to where we started in this video. It's February 8th, 2010, and MTV removes the words Music Television from its logo. Now, it's just MTV, a brand desperate to stay alive and cool. Maybe, that's the problem. MTV can't do everything at once while trying to be cool. It must decide what it's going to be, and cool certainly isn't it. 

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable. From start-ups to nature, from literature to aviation. Hearing impaired, so let’s talk loud and clear.
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