MTV: Always New and Improved

by Joanna De Jesus

At the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA’s), Justin Timberlake accepted his award for Best Male Artist and criticized the network’s lack of music videos as part of their programming. “MTV, play more damn videos,” he said, “We don’t want to see The Simpsons on reality television. Play more videos” (Hiatt 1). Though I concede that MTV should play more music videos, I still insist that they are, in fact, giving their viewers what they want. In the article by Steve Jones, “MTV: The Medium was the Message”, he argues that scholarly sources on MTV have declined since the 1980’s due to MTV’s change in programming. He admits, MTV changed and lost its promise as “Music Television”, but he reminds us the change was for the better. “What caused MTV to begin moving towards live and reality programming was the need to capture audiences for longer periods of time than music videos would permit” (Jones 87). “Timberlake’s criticism pointed at broader concerns that music has become less essential to MTV’s identity” (Hiatt 1).

In the early history of MTV, music videos were a new way to experience music, but the network could not sustain itself forever solely by producing one type of programming. MTV expanded by adding variety to their programming and marketing their brand to reach the youth in other cultures through global expansion. Jones argues that this global phenomenon is “the first and most important reason that MTV continues to have an impact on popular culture” (Jones 84). For this reason, more scholarly attention should be given to the long-term effects of MTV. “‘Music television is a term that has to be redefined for each generation,’ says president of programming Brian Graden, who was instrumental in the station’s recent shift toward teen pop. ‘You have to find new ways to package it, celebrate it, reinvent it, or somebody else would create tomorrow’s music television’ “(Ali and Devin 50). Even though MTV stopped airing music videos and turned to regular programming, thus sacrificing its original purpose, MTV’s success at capturing their youth audience after 30 years should be defined by their ability to reinvent themselves with each generation.

To understand postmodernism, one must understand modernism: “Modernism is characterized as a rejection of realist representation and was thus a move away from the 19th century’s objective depiction of the world to various forms of abstraction and symbolism that emphasized subjective inward consciousness” (O’Donnell 183). Postmodernism explains how today’s modern culture is created by the advancement in technologies which set us apart from previous “modern societies”. It is the next layer of modernism. The debate of what is “postmodern” began in the 1950’s as a way to describe modern architecture and new styles of poetry (O’Donnell 191). In the 1970’s, when the claims of postmodernism began to appear in other cultures and academic disciplines, and theorist like Jean-Francois Lyotard came on the scene, the idea began to take hold and postmodernism was “here to stay”(Connor 6).

Mark Poster’s claim on postmodernism is that new technology increases the speed in which we receive a message, thus changing our lives because we quickly become dependent on this (O’Donnell 182).

What does new technology have to do with postmodernism? Theorists believe that they influence our society and create “a simulated culture highlighted by virtual reality” (O’Donnell 182). Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard argue that the growth of the Internet, satellite radio, and phones with advance capabilities, are all forming a new social culture (O’Donnell 183). Does postmodernism really exist? Is there a ‘unified sensibility’ running across and between all the different areas of cultural life? Does postmodernism unjustly limit or prematurely curtail the ‘unfinished project’ of modernism? Is there anything new or valuable in the alleged ‘postmodern breakthrough’? Does postmodernist culture exist? If so, (sometimes even if not) is it a good thing or a bad thing? These are some of the many questions that came with the controversy following the “postmodernism” debate (Connor 6).

Smartphones and social networking sites such as Facebook prove Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois to be correct in their argument. Now, our social culture depends on technology. A cell phone can be used as a portable computer, an ATM, a radio, a camera, and of course a phone. People regain contact after years at the click of a button by accepting a friend request and have virtual coffee dates, rather than actual face time.

Postmodernism in television looks at the way intertextuality is used and lets the viewers analyze their own meanings to what they are watching (O’Donnell 187). Intertextuality can be defined through shows such as South Park, Family Guy, and The Daily Show. These shows address current events and pop culture moments that we, as viewers, are familiar with. Every week South Park parodies current events in pop culture, politics, or world news. Intertexuality is the content and the action is self-reflexivity or self-awareness when television recognizes and references itself.

Another great example of this is an old cartoon that aired on MTV, Beavis and Butthead. Beavis and Butthead were two young guys in high school, who sat around watching music videos on MTV. They were doing exactly what their viewers were doing and through the same network.

MTV is the epitome of postmodernism in television. Combining music with television and coining the term VJ (video jockey) to mean, “A person who conducts a television program of recorded music interspersed with chatter, jokes, and commercials (O’Donnell 188),” the network found a business in using music videos as paid advertisement for the record companies. They also televised live mega events, which were a catalyst for reality shows and more. MTV has redefined the way television is produced through creative editing, camera angles, and breaking the 4th wall (O’Donnell 189). “MTV not only changed the way we listen to music, but the station turbocharged the careers of icons such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, inspired fashion trends (remember the Hammer flattop?) and even influenced the way movies and TV programs are made (its Real World series was a reality-TV pioneer). From the chortling idiocy of Beavis and Butthead, to the appeal of MTV’s ever-morphing logo and eye-popping graphics, the Viacom-owned station’s presence is now ubiquitous” (Ali and Devin 50). Furthermore, to cater to our fragmented culture, the sister network VH1 was created for those who have grown out of the MTV phase.

The key to MTV’s survival is its’ ability to know when to change, what to market, and who to target. When the shift in viewership begins to affect ratings, MTV turns to its research team to help them create content that will set the next trends in pop culture. They turn to the trendsetters, teenagers who are aware and have a sense for the next big thing, for inside information. “We’re in a constant state of reinvention,” said Van Toffler, the president of MTV Networks Music/Film/Logo Group. The network is “rethinking the channels programs for the millennial generation, as those born in the 1980’s and 90’s are sometimes called.” From 2005 to 2009, MTV lost about 250,000 viewers and realized they were hanging on to the Gen X-ers for too long. It was time to give their attention to the next generation, who make up the current audience (Stelter 2).

In an article for Newsweek (2001) titled, “We Still Want Our MTV,” Lorraine Ali and Devin Gordon wrote, ”But not everyone is feeling the love for MTV. Critics say the secret to its success is the result of a Faustian bargain, where the station sacrificed its initial credibility to cater to teens’ most immediate and banal tastes.” Letting teenagers dictate who your target audience will be next, what type of content you’ll be airing, and when you will begin to change your programming to fit their needs, may not sound like the smartest business decision, especially when referring to it as a “Faustian bargain.” But for MTV this is what has worked for them because their audience is a 12-25 demographic.

The article continued to describe the over all-content on MTV: MTV’s main-attraction artists are now bubblegum poppers like Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, while its most popular shows consist of teens voting (and woo-hoo-ing) for their favorite videos, singing karaoke-style over hits and being made over into their favorite pop stars. Its prime-time hours (from 3:30 p.m. until dinner time) are filled with this fare, not to mention nonstop T&A in videos and beach-house specials, while more edgy artists are relegated to off-peak viewing hours or the smaller satellite station, MTV2. “It would be nice if MTV’s music programming was as risk-taking as the people who run it,” says former news anchor Tabitha Soren, who was at the station from 1991 to 1998. “It would be nice if their programming was more diverse. MTV now has enough power and has shown how irreverent and how creative it can be, so they should distinguish their programming from radio programming” (Ali and Devin 50).

Three years earlier, in 1998, Chris Morris wrote an article about trendsetter studies and how this research was used to influence MTV programming. Music Trendsetter Studies (MTS) is research conducted by the network that looks at “opinions, aspirations, tastes, and longings of listeners who live their lives ahead of he mainstream curve” (2). He quotes MTV president Judy McGrath when she explains this research is important to their programming because by knowing what these self-motivated young adults are thinking, you can use that knowledge to trigger what the latest artist will be working on next. She also says, “It can really tell you something about where the audience is, because that audience connection is the whole deal” (2).

The quote above also mentions MTV2. MTV2 was brought on as an alternative to viewers that did not care for the Backstreet Boys and Ms. Spears. As a way to cover their boundaries and not leave any viewers behind, MTV2 continues its “original purpose” of 24/7 music videos. To sum up, MTV allows the network to have a clear understanding of where trends are headed so they can create the their own. Getting there before the others is what MTV prides itself on.

Michael Mertz, a television instructor at Columbia College Chicago, with an extensive knowledge of rock music and the history of television said this about MTV,“MTV is postmodern because they reflect the sensibilities of their audience and that audience is completely postmodern in terms of their expectations of television and of the culture and the world in general.” In the beginning, MTV went through an experimental phase that “marked a new era in the promotion, consumption and power of pop music among the record-buying young, and coined the expression the ‘MTV generation’”(BBC News 1). During their rise to the top, MTV quickly became an iconic presence in pop-culture, impacting visual style and popular music.

From its debut in the U.S in 1981, MTV has inspired visual media culture and was the first to explore and introduce new formats for programs that are now essential to popular culture.  What made MTV so groundbreaking was the fact that there were only two ways to listen to music as the time: listening to it on the radio or buying the record. MTV began with around the clock broadcasting of music videos and later introduced “mega-events”, the merging of popular music and corporate sponsorship, “unplugged” acoustic performances, and reality programming in the form of The Real World. LiveAid was one of MTV’s mega-events, a fundraiser that helped raise money for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia in the mid 1980’s (BBC News4). The youth culture in the 1980’s and the artist were aware of global issues such as the famine in Ethiopia.

Soon after, coverage of the US Presidential election in 1992 set the trend for “Rock the Vote,” a campaign that encourages young adults to be aware of social and political issues. MTV found a way to make politics cool. By its 20th year, the music started to fade and the content turned to reality TV. It is my opinion that between the 2001 and 2011, MTV has been undergoing yet another experimental phase. The music is not completely gone. It can be heard as background music in their shows and found on their web site. The cartoons are gone and all that’s left is guilty pleasure reality shows such as, Jersey Shore, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and Sixteen & Pregnant. I believe the next generation of MTV programming will be documentary-style. The shift has already begun, while we see the immature sixteen year old demand an over the top party to commemorate their sixteenth birthday, the same viewers get to follow the lives of the same age group having to grow up faster than expected as teen parents.

It is also important to take into account that the youth market of today is different from the teens ten and twenty years ago. The teens today can be categorized into so many subcultures. Their expectations are higher and they demand things faster. The generation that MTV is now trying to target grew up with the Internet and iPods. MTV is aware of this and also aware that the network is no longer a musical tastemaker. With new research and new marketing tools, MTV will find a way to reach the new audience as they have in the past.

It is important to acknowledge that MTV is bigger than just MTV and After it’s launch, MTV proved to be a success and decided to test their chances at success over seas. “In 1987, MTV Europe launched adding more than 1.6 million households to MTV’s subscription list” (BBC News4). Ten years later, MTV was the first music channel to launch on the web and continued launching the network in other countries, such as the UK and Ireland (BBC News 4). MTV Networks is a business owned by Viacom. Their brand, “MTV”, is a global brand known worldwide with programs showing in 169 countries and heard in 28 languages (Lowry 1). In fact, the network has a policy with its overseas partners of 70% local content, which has resulted in some of the network’s most creative shows (Capell 4).
MTV’s global expansion has created a global village or “global mall.” Economically, the profits made from this operation are more than expected since “few other transnational media operations can claim to make profits at all” (Capell 2). In some countries, such as China, MTV has partnered with local cable operators. China and India are their biggest markets, and as noted before the policy states that 70% of programming needs to be local content. This allows the country to have control over the content, while MTV still gets to attach their brand to it. The cultures may be different, but musically the cultures are the same. This influences all kinds of trends, not just in music. It influences the clothing style, slang, and unifies different cultures through this global network. Being a network that markets to teens or “youth culture,” it is equally as important to be globally aware than it is to be politically aware or socially aware.

The Real World and The Hills era is coming to an end and MTV may never return to its original purpose: broadcasting music videos around the clock. Though I admit, MTV should play more music videos, the reality is the network would not have made it past five or ten years if that is all it did. The new generation is impatient. They want things instantly and the growth of the Internet has allowed this. With other media outlets available to them, like Yahoo! Music, YouTube, and MySpace to name a few, people have options for watching music videos. They turn to MTV (or because it is a brand they know and trust. MTV Networks, a business that now includes MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, TV Land, TNN and CMT, continues to find new ways to promote music while creating content that revolves around pop culture. Without a doubt, MTV is postmodern and so are the people that tune in.

Works Cited

Ali, Lorraine, and Devin Gordon. “We Still Want Our MTV.” Newsweek 138, no.4 (July 23, 2001):50. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 29,2010).

Capell, Kery, et al. “MTV’S World.” BusinessWeek 3770 (2002): 81-84. Business Source Elite. EBSCO. Wed. 19 Oct. 2010.

Connor, Steven. Postmodern Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. 2nd. London University: Birkbeck College, 2001. 6

Hiatt, Brain. “MTV’s Midlife Crisis.” Rolling Stone 1036 (2007): 11-12. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 19 OCT. 2010

Jones, Steve. “MTV: The Medium was the Message.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.1 (2005): 83-88. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. 29 Sept. 2010

Lowry, Tom. “Can MTV Stay Cool? (cover story).” BusinessWeek 3972 (2006): 50-60. Business Source Elite. EBSCO. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Montana: SAGE Publications, 2007. 181-198

Mertz, Michael. Interview by Joanna DeJesus. 12 Dec 2010

“MTV’s irresistible rise.” BBC News (2001):1-5. 19 OCT 2010

Morris, Chris. “Future Divined in new ‘Trendsetters Study’.” Billboard 110.39 26 Sept 1998. N. pag. Academic Search Premier. Database. 19 Oct 2010.

Stelter, Brian. “MTV Is Looking Beyond.” New York Times (2010): 1-4. Web. 14 Dec 2010.

1 thought on “MTV: Always New and Improved

  1. MTV was once a great way to promote Artists and their music videos. I remember coming home as a teenager and watching TRL just to see what was the coolest new music videos. MTV no longer has its roots because all you see on the network is reality shows. Some of the shows are interesting to watch,and some are just for entertainment. I do hope that MTV can return to its original programing and start showing more music videos instead of reality shows. Even if there were a mixture of programming,it would help.

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