After 10 years, MTV reaps rewards of the cutting edge


It was just after midnight on the morning of Aug. 1, 1981, when an anonymous voice announced to an unknown number of cable viewers, "Ladies and gentlemen -- rock and roll." And with that, MTV introduced itself to America.

Not all of America, of course. In fact, MTV's penetration was so spotty that even its corporate offices in Manhattan were unable to tune in until late the next year. So MTV staffers found themselves hiking across the Hudson to Fort Lee, N.J., to watch their own premiere.

L But that hardly kept the fledgling outfit from thinking big.

Why, its very first video -- "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles -- seemed a warning to the rest of the rock establishment. As the chorus put it, "Video killed the radio star/Pictures came and took your heart."

It was a cocky beginning.

Yet as MTV nears the end of its first decade, the cable channel seems a bigger success than even its inventors dared dream. With some 7,430 affiliates, it reaches more than 56 million subscribers in the United States, an audience that has come to depend on MTV for everything from Madonna's latest look to Guns N' Roses' newest scandal.

Everyone, it seems, wants their MTV.

"Its impact has been incalculable," said Anthony DeCurtis, a senior editor at Rolling Stone.

Indeed, MTV has had a broader impact on American popular culture than anything since rock and roll itself. It changed the pace of television, the look of advertising, the feel of movies, and the mechanics of star-making -- not to mention the sound of popular music.

MTV's mixture of sound and vision has turned movies into multimedia marketing vehicles, with hit potential -- as films like "Top Gun" and "Pretty Woman" have proven -- in both theater and record store.

Its impact is reflected everywhere in television. When NBC's Brandon Tartikoff scribbled the phrase "MTV Cops" on a note pad, it sparked "Miami Vice" and a major shift in the networks' attitudes toward image, music and narrative.

Advertising agencies were also eager to appropriate this new visual vocabulary. "MTV represents the avant-garde of commercial practice," said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's probably had more of an influence on advertisement -- TV advertisement and even print advertisement -- than any recent development. The constant cutting, the relentless rock score, the brilliant colors, the bargain-basement dadaism -- all of that is what advertising has needed."

As movies, advertising and other television made inroads on MTV's turf, the channel broadened its own base by including non-rock shows in its lineup, ranging from "Remote Control," a TV-trivia game show, to the fashion-conscious "House of Style." Where once the veejays read "rock news" items between clips, now MTV has its own, daily "MTV News" programs. And not only are there movie-based videos, there's also "The Big Picture," MTV's own movie news show.

"MTV's value right now is in its coverage of rock culture, not rock music," said Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly television critic. "I'm thinking of things like Kurt Loder's reporting of the news, which has been very strong against rock and roll censorship."

MTV hasn't been without detractors, of course. It was barely on the air a minute before the complaints started coming in, and they haven't let up since. Moralists complained that there was too much sex and violence in the videos; rock purists argued that putting pictures to music only cheapens the value of a song.

What really gets critics carping, though, is MTV's glorification of the fast-paced, non-linear stream of images. Some call it "eye candy," and complain of its hypnotic effect on viewers. Bob DeMoss, a youth culture specialist at Focus on Family, a conservative Christian action group, argued that MTV's constantly changing picture doesn't allow a viewer to digest what he or she sees.

"What ends up happening is that it puts you in a mesmerized state," he said. "I've seen kids when MTV is turned on -- you could offer them a million dollars and they wouldn't hear you."

MTV's non-narrative approach may disorient older viewers, but children seem to understand it instinctively. Mr. DeCurtis remembered the first time he watched MTV with a young nephew. "I was in my 30s, and he was maybe 12. I would be watching these things and have no idea what was going on -- there's the girl in the garter, there's the breaking cup, there's rain on the window, there's a picture of the band performing -- whereas he was able to just roll along with that. He knew exactly where he was."

That pace, which Les Garland, a former vice president at MTV, described as "a whole hour of three-minute movies," is at the heart of MTV. But the channel claims it's also part of modern American life.

"We do reflect the current culture, and it moves fast," said Judy McGrath, MTV's creative director. "And it has for the last 10

years. We're really kind of a mirror of that."


There may have been rock videos before MTV, but almost nobody in America ever saw them. Videos were conceived as advertisements for an artist's music -- that's how MTV got them for free -- but it wasn't until MTV started selling albums that the music industry began to realize how viable rock videos were.

Now, of course, music video is an industry in its own right, thanks to the MTV-fired boom in rock-oriented videocassettes. But when the channel debuted, the notion of watching music presented as commercials was utterly foreign to American television. "You hear people say all the time that they don't like to watch advertisements," Mr. DeCurtis said. "Yet MTV is essentially a 24-hour-a-day advertisement that people watch willingly. So it's an extraordinary coup."

MTV didn't create this audience, he added. "Its gift was that it understood that they were there."

It also understood that the rock radio of the early '80s, with its reliance on long-haired, guitar-based arena acts like Foreigner, Styx and Journey, wasn't offering what America's youth wanted, either. So it augmented radio rockers with new-wavers like Duran Duran and Adam Ant, and the MTV kids went wild.

"MTV was instrumental in breaking us in America," said Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes, whose group became multi-platinum heart-throbs on the strength of MTV exposure.

Duran Duran weren't the only ones. From Madonna, who leapt from dance-club anonymity to multimedia stardom thanks to videos like "Lucky Star" and "Material Girl," to George Michael, who moved from the bubble-gum pop of Wham! to megastardom through a few well-directed videos, rock stardom has become unthinkable without MTV.

"MTV wants to break artists, and wants to say that they broke the artist, and take credit for it," said Linda Ferrando, director of national video promotions for Atlantic Records.

"There are certain bands where MTV will say, 'We really like this band. We want to support them, and we'll play them no matter what.'

"Then there are other bands that have a fan base, that have radio, yet are not selling. But MTV sees that somebody's listening. So they start to bang it, and all of a sudden, they've pushed it to the top."


Forbes may have already declared MTV the "business idea of the decade," but in 1982 the channel was still having trouble persuading cable systems to add it to their basic service grid. So the channel came up with an ingenious promotion: Get rock fans to call their local cable operators and say, "I want my MTV!" And since fans listened to the stars, MTV got rockers like Pete Townshend, David Bowie and Mick Jagger to appear in its "I want my MTV!" spots.

The campaign worked better than anyone would have dreamed. Not only did MTV's viewership increase dramatically, but Mark Knopfler wound up immortalizing the phrase in the chorus to Dire Straits' hit, "Money for Nothing."

Some people, however, did not want their MTV.

Fundamentalist groups were scandalized. One, Morality in Media, claimed in 1984 that music videos were "packed" with obscene images. Others, including the Parents Music Resource Center, objected to the violence. One clip that seemed to rankle everyone was Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It," which featured a mascaraed Dee Snyder pushing a bossy father down a flight of stairs.

MTV, which had always tried to keep its programming in line with cable standards, quickly created a Standards and Practices office. Although its critics still cringed at the number of bikini-clad babes who writhed through rock videos, in a single season MTV rejected David Bowie's "China Girl," which showed a naked embrace in the Australian surf; Van Halen's "Pretty Woman," which was peopled with midgets and transvestites; and the Rolling Stones' bloody "Neighbors" video.

Still, the complaints kept coming. In 1988, then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said that music videos "are a combination of senseless violence and senseless pornography to the beat of rock music." And in June, TCA Cable of Tyler, Texas, unplugged MTV because, in one official's view, it verged on pornography.

Is MTV too sexy?

"I think MTV is still extremely conservative," says veejay Adam Curry. "You'd be amazed at the stuff submitted to MTV that doesn't get on the air, because it doesn't get through our Standards and Practices committee."

What is conservative to Mr. Curry is still too liberal for folks like Mr. DeMoss from Focus on Family. "I think that if MTV executives don't tune into the realities of mainstream America, whose sensibilities they continue to assault day after day as they push the line of decency, they are inviting what has been taking place in TCA," said Mr. DeMoss. "They can only push that line so far."

But MTV shouldn't be held to a higher standard than other media organizations, counters rock critic Dave Marsh.

"Is MTV somehow more sexist than any given television network? Of course it isn't. Is MTV any dumber than any random sitcom? Of course it isn't. Is MTV any more irresponsible and lily-white than, say, 'Nightline'? No, it isn't. It's the most integrated, politically progressive force on television.

"I certainly don't view it as something without problems," said rock critic Dave Marsh. "I think it's too saturated in the commercial culture, and it often is too dumb. But that's true of every bit of television."

At least, he said, "they try. I think they can be trying, but they try."

MTV: Who? What? Where!

Who started it?

John A. Lack, then executive vice president of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, came up with the idea; Robert Pittman, who went on to create "The Morton Downey, Jr. Show," was hired as president. MTV, originally owned by Warner-Amex, was sold to Viacom International in 1984.

How big is it?

At start up, MTV had 2.1 million subscribers. Currently, it has 56.6 million, with 7,430 affiliates in the U.S. There are also MTV operations in Australia, Europe and Brazil. MTV Japan was dropped last month, but an MTV Asia -- with a target audience of 2 billion -- is in the works.

How profitable is it?

MTV is not a publicly held corporation and does not release its profit statements. In its first three years of operation, it is believed to have lost as much as $50 million. These days, however, MTV is extremely profitable. According to cable analysts at Paul Kagan Associates Inc., MTV's operating cash flow in 1990 was $74 million, up from $54 million in 1989; Kagan projects that its 1991 cash flow will be as high as $85 million.

Who watches?

MTV says its target audience is ages 12-34.

What show is No. 1?

"Yo! MTV Raps," a rap music program airing weekdays at 5 p.m., and Saturdays at 10 p.m.

Which Veejay is still on?

Martha Quinn, who hosts "MTV Prime" Mondays through Thursdays, is the only original veejay still on.

What's next?

In 1981, Pittman was quoted as saying that MTV will "change for the sake of changing." Judy McGrath, MTV's creative director, feels that's still the case. "It still feels like the Can-You-Believe-They-Gave-Them-a-Channel channel," she says.

@ These artists and groups either got their starts or were propelled even higher thanks to their exposure on MTV over the

last decade:

* Madonna

* Guns N' Roses

* Def Leppard

* Janet Jackson

* M. C. Hammer

* Duran Duran

* Cyndi Lauper


* Bon Jovi

* Vanilla Ice

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